‘Like Going For a Walk With a Sick, White Oprah.’
(Third Star, Hattie Dalton, UK, 2010, 85 mins)
Like the cross-medium bastard-child of The Hangover and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Hattie Dalton’s Third Star alternates between bouts of surreal comedy, laddish banter, and gloomy meditations on death and loss.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 29, James (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his three best friends, the overprotective Davy (Tom Burke), serial womanizer Miles (JJ Feild), and the free-spirited Bill (Adam Robertson), take one last journey to Barafundle Bay, an isolated cove on the Welsh coast somewhat mythologized in James’ dying mind.
Relying heavily on the believability of the relationships between the four leads to drive the piece, Third Star thankfully captures the strange combination of aggression and unspoken fondness that defines long-term male friendships. Peppered with constant abuse, rivalry, and conversational shorthand, the chemistry between the four friends throws up some unexpectedly touching moments – Davy giving James a piggyback over some rough terrain – as well as deliciously blokey repartee. With the four friends crammed into a two-man tent, Bill remarks amidst the laughing and jostling, ‘I’ve got a knife here; you start going Brokeback and I start going Rambo.’
But, Third Star is not a standard road trip movie. As the group journeys closer to the fabled bay, fissures begin to show in their relationships, and James grows increasingly preoccupied with his own mortality, attacking his friends for what he views to be their squandering of their lives. Although this does result in the piece dissolving into movie-of-the-week mawkishness at points, Third Star, for the most part, manages to stay on the right side of saccharine thanks to a sharp, self-aware script from Vaughan Sivell, a bit-part actor taking on writing duties for the first time.
Just when the piece begins to stray into the realms of melodrama, one of the characters, usually Miles, the straight-talking, cynical heart of Third Star, will relieve the emotional tension with a withering putdown. ‘It’s like going for a walk with a sick, white Oprah,’ he remarks during one of James’ outpourings.
Also worthy of praise is Carlos Catalán’s cinematography, which overcomes Third Star’s middling budget to grant the film an austere beauty entirely apt for its subject matter. Opening with a metaphorically-loaded, slow-motion shot of a lawnmower scything down long blades of grass, and littered with lingering shots of the craggy Pembrokeshire coastline and the four friends silhouetted against a burning dusk sky, Dalton’s film is never less than visually striking.
Although the cast are uniformly excellent, particularly Feild, who embodies Miles with boundless charisma betraying a deeper insecurity, it’s the memorably-monickered Cumberbatch, an actor best known for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the BBC drama Hawking, whose performance endures in the mind. Cutting an otherworldly figure with his impossibly sharp features and piercing eyes, Cumberbatch’s James is prickly, arrogant, constantly high on morphine, and desperately seeking some measure of control over his last days. A welcome antithesis of the standard pitiable dying man, James’ impotent rage at his unchangeable fate is all the more affecting due to the believability of his character.
While Third Star may veer uncomfortably close to melodrama, strong performances and scripting, coupled with a finale that demands that the entirety of the film be reassessed, in turn raising some pertinent questions over the nature of illness and lending James’ attempts to put his friends’ lives in order a heartbreaking significance, result in an impressive feature debut from Dalton. Touching, comical, believable, and beautiful, Third Star, like a lost friend, lingers long in the mind.
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