Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Child Is Father to the Man: Nowhere Special

Daniel Lamont and James Norton in Nowhere Special.

The Irish movie Nowhere Special came out in 2020 but never made it to these shores. A friend put me on to it, and I saw it in the only form currently available to North Americans – on an imported disc that you can only access if you have an all-regions DVD player. It’s a small, intimate picture about a working-class man named John (played by James Norton) who has been raising his three-year-old, Michael (Daniel Lamont), by himself since his partner abandoned them and moved back to her native Russia. Now John is dying of cancer. The film is about his struggle, through the services of an adoption agency, to find foster parents for Michael while he tries to figure out a way to prepare the boy for his departure. In some ways Nowhere Special reminded me of another recent small-scale Irish film I liked, The Quiet Girl, about a shy little girl whose parents send her to live for a few months with her aunt and uncle in the country before the birth of their fourth child, and who finds more love there than she’s ever been shown by her immediate family. The director of The Quiet Girl, Colm Bairad, has a more sophisticated technique than Pasolini, and the movie counts visual splendor among its virtues. Nowhere Special is closer to many TV movies that used to pop up in the seventies and eighties, but the writer-director, Uberto Pasolini, who based his script on a true story, barely takes a false step. His understatement suggests to me a kind of honor – a refusal to sentimentalize or otherwise falsify the difficult subject matter.

When one of the couples John and Michael visit ask him, out of the child’s earshot, how he would like to be remembered, what they should tell him about his natural father as Michael grows older, John answers, “I’m a window washer.” His response is a mixture of self-effacement and worker’s pride. When a belligerent, condescending first-time client rides him and complains without cause about his work, John returns later when the man is away, and gets some satisfaction from egging a couple of his windows in revenge. John grew up in tough circumstances: he was fostered himself after his dad sent him away at four, and he learned how to keep his feelings to himself – a habit that he now discovers, as he confesses to Shona (Eileen O’Higgins), one of the two women handling his case at the agency, he can no longer fall back on as he watches other kids with their parents. Norton shows us the tenderness of a man accustomed to taking care of himself in a rough world whose life is now irrevocably built around a little boy for whom, of course, he wants all the things he didn’t get. His interaction with the man who bitches about the job John does on his windows is a glimpse into his origins, but it isn’t typical. In fact, he gets along with everyone he has regular contact with, and he’s grateful for their acts of kindness. He enjoys a warm relationship with one of his long-time clients, who talks to him about the loss of her husband, and the women from the agency (Shona’s boss, Mrs. Parkes, is played by Laura Hughes) are empathetic to the unusual nature of his situation and they break rules for him, allowing him more visits to prospective fosters than they’re supposed to.

The movie has its own unstressed naturalistic rhythms, but the key structural element is the five visits John and Michael, along with Shona, make to four couples and one single woman he’s considering leaving the boy with. One is a well-off couple who live in the country and want to give Michael the best education they can; they’re generous and well-meaning, but we can see John chafe against their posh lifestyle. One couple has amassed a pile of kids, only some of them adopted; the atmosphere in their home feels tense and competitive. One is a gruff postman and his wife; the man complains about the dogs on his route – and Michael loves dogs. The single woman, Ella (Valerie O’Connor, in a deeply felt small performance) got pregnant at fifteen and was pressured her to give up the baby against her wishes; later she found out she couldn’t have another, and her husband didn’t want an adopted child. Now on her own, she’s anxious to have what she’s always wanted. I said earlier that Pasolini takes hardly a false step. There is, perhaps, only one – a scene where John and Michael meet a fussy, uptight couple who rub him, and us, the wrong way. In the other visits Pasolini presents the characters and lays out the circumstances, and lets us draw our own conclusions based as much on John’s predilections as on his instincts, but here the couple’s behavior sends up danger signals.

In between, in a series of delicately affecting two-handed scenes, we see John, initially reluctant to tell his son about his illness at all and cause him distress, come to the inevitable conclusion that he has no choice. Michael finds a dead beetle on a tree and John has to explain what death is – and Michael, who is curious and sensitive, extrapolates from the encounter. So we see John reading to his son from the children’s book When Dinosaurs Die, and toward the end he does what Mrs. Parkes urged early in the picture but he resisted: he puts together a memory box to leave behind for Michael.

James Norton is one of England’s less celebrated acting treasures, but fans of British television (a category that includes practically everyone I know) would recognize him from Grantchester and from his terrifying portrait of a sociopath on Happy Valley. He was Andrei in the marvelous 2016 War and Peace miniseries (opposite Paul Dano as Pierre and Lily James as Natasha), and he deserved far more kudos than he received for his performance in Agneszka Holland’s Mr. Jones in 2019 as Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who uncovered the story of Stalin’s man-made famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s. (The movie deserved more attention too.) The strikingly handsome Norton, with his piercing blue eyes, his pensive gaze and hushed charisma, would seem to be too distinctive to be thought of as a chameleon, but he doesn’t repeat himself, and the range of character he can summon from those qualities is wondrous. For a lesson in how a gifted actor stretches, just compare his scenes with two young actors, Daniel Lamont in Nowhere Special and Rhys Connah in Happy Valley. Upon seeing his work in Happy Valley and Mr. Jones and War and Peace I realized that it would be a mistake not to let anything he did pass me by. That’s why I hunted down Nowhere Special.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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