It features two ingredients I’m passionate about — the treatment of refugees and the allotment movement — and it’s written, in part at least, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Boyce is one of the most respected scriptwriters in the UK and he has produced great scripts for Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle. His name on the credits was certainly what attracted me, alongside a strong cast. According to the attractive, but over-designed, website for the film, originally the story was going to be a documentary. The idea came from the experience of asylum seekers from Kosovo and Angola who were offered the chance to work on their own allotments in Liverpool as part of a scheme set up by a psychotherapist. Because asylum seekers can’t take paid work, the chance to work on the allotment gives them a focus.
The script for the feature film includes the stories of three families of asylum seekers and the initial hostility they face from the local allotment-holders. I think these stories are strong and a moving drama could have been the result. Unfortunately, what finally emerged was a meld of the emotional drama and a rather tired and silly social comedy which to me seemed like a throwback to Ealing in the predictability of much of the action. Boyce says in the Production Notes that he wanted to give it a ‘Bill Forsyth feel’. I think I can see why he thought this would work and there is a quirkiness about the set-up which could be developed in ways similar to Comfort and Joy (1984). However, such a strategy would need a highly skilled and sensitive director and Richard Laxton is a TV director with just one feature credit — the critically derided Life and Lyrics (2006). I haven’t seen anything else by this director, so it would be unfair to judge him on this film. Intriguingly the film was shot in CinemaScope and features an unusual colour palette (painting the sheds on the allotment is a plot feature). In fact, the setting in Liverpool is visually striking and unusual with lots of potential.
I don’t really understand what went wrong. The co-writer Carl Hunter from the Liverpool band The Farm had the original idea and he was also a producer. I can only assume that someone lost their nerve in allowing the comic elements to become dominant. The central relationship between a South Chinese family group and an ex merchant seaman on an adjacent plot has all the elements for great drama (including black comedy), but it isn’t allowed to develop. At one point the script even clumsily spells out what has happened in dialogue — even though we have already begun to understand events through the sensitive performance by Benedict Wong.
There are plenty of good things in the film and I laughed several times, but overall I just felt it didn’t hang together — the music wasn’t well used either). I hope Frank Cottrell Boyce bounces back soon.