Review: A Long Way Down (2014)

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Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne
Based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Sam Neill, Rosamund Pike & Tuppence Middleton
Runtime: 96 min // Certificate: 15

I recently rewatched About a Boy and discovered, to my amazement, that I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as I thought I did. Therefore, my expectations for A Long Way Down – Pascal Chaumeil’s English language debut, and an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby (intriguingly enough, the only Hornby I’ve ever read) – were ever-so-slightly raised. After all, a decent cast in dark comedy which explores depression, suicide and hopelessness sounds like just my thing!

Alas, in spite of the cast’s stellar efforts, A Long Way Down is little more than a tame but sporadically affecting adaptation of a rather difficult and confused story. With such a unique premise, A Long Way Down is a frustrating watch for one simple but critical reason; it’s far too safe. Rather than risk catastrophe or aim for greatness, Chaumeil and Thorne play it safe at every given turn, resulting in a film that toys with some interesting ideas and then backs down whenever it promises to get that little bit darker or more intriguing.

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The plot, for those who don’t know, goes thus; four suicidal people – Martin Sharp (Brosnan), Maureen Thompson (Collette), JJ Maguire (Paul) and Jess Crichton (Poots) – coincidentally climb the same London high rise on New Year’s Eve with the intention of jumping off, only to back down and form a bizarre little self-help group, with each member promising not to commit suicide until Valentine’s Day at the earliest. Recognising an opportunity when he sees one, ex-TV presenter Martin suggests that the group make the most of their ordeal and turn it into a heart-warming media story. Alas, friction within the group soon threatens to tear them apart and they quickly learn that overnight fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

As I’m sure you can tell, the film gets off to an unavoidably clunky start because the plot is just that little bit too ridiculous. Nevertheless, once things get going it has a certain undeniable charm to it that, like other Hornby adaptations, sucks you in whether you want it to or not. The four central performances are very good (with Brosnan in particular doing a sterling job) and the characters are surprisingly complex. Alas, the foundations upon which each character’s depression is built (the disabled son, the criminal past, the hipster who just wants to feel loved, and so on and so forth) are so insultingly stereotypical that no amount of character development can salvage them.

Furthermore, much like the novel upon which it is based, A Long Way Down suffers because it’s absolutely all over the shop tonally, so much so that it often appears to treat its rather bleak subject matter with just a little bit too much flippancy. I guess one has to give it some credit for at least attempting (and often succeeding, it must be said) to find even the smallest amount of humour amongst the tragedy, which is no small feat, but due to its reluctance to tackle the major issues head on, the film often meanders about aimlessly. The really meaty ideas – namely, media interference and the inexplicable / indescribable causes of depression – go shamefully underexplored, resulting in cheap, predictable resolutions that are both simplistic and cloying.

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A Long Way Down works now and then; it takes a light-hearted approach to certain issues and the humour is surprisingly good, though I think it’s at odds with the subject matter and not in a clever or inventive way. The clunky exposition is an issue, as is the film’s overreliance on crude emotional manipulation, but if you put these issues to one side it manages to tug on the heart strings rather well. There is some decent stuff going on (though none of it is given enough screen time) which helps excuse much of the tat and the performances are engaging enough to stop the film falling to pieces at the first hurdle, which – with such a ludicrous plot – was always a strong possibility.

If you can stomach the maudlin nonsense to get to the moments of greatness (or even just potential greatness), A Long Way Down is worth a look. It doesn’t work on the screen anywhere near as much as it does on paper but I must admit to having quite a bit of fun with it in the end. It’s hardly ground-breaking cinema but it does a reasonable job of getting the audience involved in the lives of the four main characters. It also made me warm to Imogen Poots (an actor who I have really struggled to like in the past), so it gets a bit of additional credit for that. Alas, on the whole – when push comes to shove – the whole affair just feels like one huge wasted opportunity.