X+Y

Director: Morgan Matthews (2015)

An autistic teenage maths prodigy seeks a formula for love in this humorous, gently uplifting and supremely moving British drama.

While exploring the delicate relationship between Nathan (Asa Butterfield) and his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), the plot follows the template of an underdog sports movie, based on the world of international competitive maths.

The story was inspired by the director’s own BAFTA nominated documentary ‘Beautiful Young Minds‘ featuring real maths competitors. Here he makes sure the maths is always interesting and understandable, keeping a firm grip on tone by adding as much humour as possible so scenes are never maudlin.

Cinematographer Danny Cohen  harks back to his work on Dead man’s Shoes and This is England, offering the film low-key realism and economically communicating Nathan’s complicated world view.

Nathan suffers from autistim and synthesia; though highly gifted at maths he is socially awkward and sensitive to changes in light and colour. He must have his toast divided into geometrically exact slices and food such as prawns served in prime number portions.

He is struggling to come to terms with his father’s death in a car crash. In flashback we see the close connection he shared with his father Michael (Martin McCann).

This loss is accentuating Nathan’s condition and isolating his mother. She is barely coping with life and her blunt speaking son has no idea how hurtful his words frequently are.

Although his condition leads to small domestic accidents such as a broken window and a flooded kitchen, Nathan finds beauty and peace in the perfection of maths and its practical application such as the geometric shapes in bridge underpasses.

Through school Nathan is introduced to scruffy, swearing teacher Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall). Himself a former maths prodigy, he now suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, depression and loneliness.

As Humphreys tutors Nathan a bond develops and the teen qualifies for a trial for the International Maths Olympiad UK team.

Nathan is flown to Taiwan by UK team leader Richard (Eddie Marsan) with sixteen extremely intelligent maths students. It’s the first time Nathan is painfully average.

They meet young competitors from different countries and all are under pressure. Refreshingly the film doesn’t pander to the audience by providing subtitles for the Chinese speakers – angry is angry regardless of the language.

Nathan’s shy charm unexpectedly leads him to being at the sharp end of a love triangle between fellow students Rebecca (Alexa Davies) and as Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).

Along the way there’s self-harm, accusations of nepotism and a dash to the station in rom-com style.

Only the best six students will be chosen to represent the UK at the Olympiad to be held at Cambridge University – as we’re only really introduced to half a dozen of the students, it’s not hard to work out who’ll survive the cut.

But the lack of tension is not important as the film is more interested in character than narrative. The real pleasure lies in this quality cast enjoying their acting and creating characters we care about.

Butterfield is the pick of a winning young cast whose quietly expressive performance carries the film with open-faced innocence. Marsan offers the closest anyone comes to grandstanding but always to serve the needs of the film. His upbeat performance is calculated to provide balance through optimism, comedy and tempo.

Spall is given the most choice lines and in his most affecting performance to date delivers them deadpan to great comic effect. Hawkins is as wonderful as ever, she plays Julie with brittle finesse and is the maternal soul the story coalesces around.

Still Life

Director: Uberto Pasolini (2015)

With plenty to say about the current state of Britain this contemplative drama is a graceful reflection on the importance of honouring the dead.

John May (Eddie Marsan) is a middle-aged, mac-wearing local civil servant.

He’s responsible for contacting relatives of the recently deceased, if none can be found he must organise the disposal of the bodies.

Dedicated, meticulous and compelled to give his clients as much dignity as possible, he draws on their belongings to write eulogies, choose appropriate music and opts for expensive church services rather than cheaper cremations.

Working from a prodigiously neat basement office and living in an equally grey and organised flat, John has a quiet and unassuming life with no friends, family or social life.

Though never complaining being over-involved in his job is a clearly a coping mechanism for his loneliness.

When John recieves his notice at the council from the unctuous Mr Pratchett (Andrew Buchan) he is determined to successfully close his last case but has only three days in which to do so.

Unknown to each other Billy Stoke lived on John’s anonymous housing estate in the flat opposite, suffereing a sad, lonely and alcoholic demise.

Well-honed detective techniques sees John travel the country by road and rail, meeting family and former colleagues, trying to find Stoke’s daughter Kelly (Joanne Froggatt).

The Italian writer-director turns a coldly critical eye on contemporary Britain, seeing a land of abandoned ex-servicemen and uncaring institutions.

Among the alienation, homelessness and terrible food, we love our dogs, hate our families and neglect the elderly.

Cinematographer Stefano Falivene makes a virtue of stillness, capturing an urban landscape with a harsh, eerie beauty and adding to John’s keenly observed sense of isolation.

There are subtle suggestions John could be a modern day version of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a good man keeping true to his personal code of honour.

Or possibly he’s a non-denominational celestial do-gooder trying to save the world one funeral at a time.

Marsan carries the film with maximum economy, conveying a variety of moods with tiny changes of expression while Downton star and Golden Globe winner Froggatt is as engaging and excellent as ever – but it would be nice to see her having on-screen fun in a glamorous role for a change.

For a moment the script seems to lurch towards a conventional conclusion instead it supplies a sweetly haunting and gently optimistic ending.

☆☆