"Tells a quite distressing and poignant tale, but is lacking in intensity and gritty realism..."
The last time we were witness to Stephen Graham performing in a gritty British drama set in Nottingham, it was Shane Meadows’s This is England. Yes the talented actor, who has since had a taste of Hollywood success with roles in films such as Public Enemies and Texas Killing Fields, is back on home soil, starring in David Blair's Best Laid Plans - a film loosely based on the renowned John Steinbeck novel 'Of Mice and Men'.
Graham plays Danny, a thuggish, slow-witted individual, battling an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. However, amidst his flaws, he cares for the lumbering Joseph (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a giant of a man, yet with the mind of a seven year old child.
Danny is continuously running into trouble, owing a vast amount of money to local crime lord Curtis (David O'Hara). Yet with little intelligence or direction, Danny turns to the help of his innocent friend and flatmate Joseph, persuading him to partake in a host of underground boxing fights, in order to pay off his debts.
Unfortunately Joseph hates fighting, but Danny's persuasion and manipulation proves dividend, and Joseph risks the love of mentally challenged Isabel (Maxine Peak) in order to help his friend, despite not really being aware of what is actually going on. Danny in the meantime, is trying to become acquainted with local prostitute Lisa (Emma Stansfield).
The film tells a quite distressing and poignant tale, but is lacking in intensity and gritty realism, as despite Blair's best efforts, Best Laid Plans is crying out for Meadows’s direction. It's an absorbing premise and potentially upsetting, but is let down by its script. Blair has certainly taken pointers from Meadows - with flashes of Dead Man's Shoes evident - but Meadows has a talent for depicting real-life in a terribly hard-nosed and natural way, uncomfortable to watch at the best of times. Best Laid Plans fails in that respect however, lacking in austerity and bleakness - despite such emotions being a requirement to the production.
However, the story is strong and that alone keeps the audience’s attention throughout, as the tragic character of Joseph and his relationship with Danny is harrowing. The premise, a blatant embodiment of Steinbeck's prestigious story, is a universal tale, and one of friendship, ambition and blind faith, and how the three can be tragically intertwined. Yes of course, instead of the rabbits and chickens that Lenny in Of Mice and Men dreams of, it's camper-vans and fishing gear that are on Joseph's agenda.
Despite such accessibility within the story it does become quite predictable, especially within the boxing angle, all feeling far too familiar, as a sport too commonly explored within gritty British dramas. The scenes involving gangsters and unpaid debts feel too much like a Guy Ritchie film, yet such an approach seems somewhat dated in contemporary cinema.
Graham, who appeared in Ritchie's Snatch, is therefore familiar with such a production, and his experience is evident. He has an edginess to him where you always feel tense during his scenes, as if he is capable of doing something terrible at any given opportunity. In a sense that is the problem with him being the protagonist and in this case, the good guy, because you feel too sure he won't crack. The character of Danny can be a bully and manipulative, exploiting the good nature and denseness of Joseph, but effectively he has a kind heart and means well - and Graham explores both sides to his character extremely well, just as he does with the character of Combo in This is England.
Yet aside from the terrific performance from Graham, he is involved in a somewhat redundant and pointless storyline between himself and Lisa. It all feels too contrived, as if Blair put it in simply to comply to the rules of film where it seems imperative to have a romantic storyline in any given situation - but it pales in comparison to the sincere and moving relationship between Joseph and Isabel. Also, the relationship between Danny and Lisa seems to get quite full on too quickly with little explanation as to why, deeming it quite surprising and therefore implausible.
The character of Lisa just seems unnecessary in general, and too false. Playing a prostitute, Blair attempts to play with our perceptions, as Lisa is into art, with countless of her own paintings in her flat. It all just feels like a forced attempt to make us believe we're wrong for judging a book by its cover.
The romantic story-line aside, Best Laid Plans is an enjoyable feature; compelling and endearing in parts, it tells a tragic tale, matched by impressive performances from the leading roles. It feels like a back to the roots job for Graham and Akinnuoye-Agbaje - back in Blighty following success on the other side of the Atlantic - and let's just hope they stick around.