❉ Written by and starring Peter Capaldi, this quirky indie film makes its long-awaited Blu-ray debut.
“This is an enjoyable trip – Capaldi is an engaging and likeable presence, and he has some sterling support – Richard Wilson, Frances Barber, Callow, Jeremy Northam, Phyllis Logan and Robert James all deliver memorable performances”
Soft Top, Hard Shoulder is, as the title suggests, is a road movie. A British road movie. Is there even such a thing? Well, yes, just not many – there’s the black and white post punk minimalism of Radio On, the psychotic trip that is Butterfly Kiss and, well, should Withnail and I count?
This funny little indie film has been unavailable for years, so its all credit to Plumeria Pictures for tidying it up and getting it out on a lovely sparkly Blu-ray.
Just before his Oscar success for his short film Franz Kafka’s’ It’s a Wonderful Life, Capaldi writes and stars in his first feature film. And a road movie it certainly is. And a love story too.
Capaldi plays a down on his luck artist who travels home to Scotland to claim his inheritance from his Scottish-Italian ice cream-producing family. Along the way he meets all sorts of people, gets in a few scrapes and meets a lovely girl. In the time-honoured fashion, it takes him a while to realise his true feelings about her. But realise them he does. Just before the credits.
It’s what often gets called ‘quirky’, before it became a dirty word – it’s a little offbeat, with circuitous dialogue and ‘eccentric’ characters (Simon Callow makes a pleasing appearance as a retired comedian. Richard Wilson is the uncle who starts the whole story off.)
It’s very autobiographical. Capaldi is indeed from a Scottish Italian ice cream producing family. He was indeed a struggling artist. And herein lies the films weakness, really – Capaldi is the hero of his own story. Writing and starring hasn’t allowed him any distance, and the film does feel like we are automatically supposed to find the main character’s story fascinating. So it doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it could have, and is a little indulgent. But still, it has lots of little details going on to keep you interested.
For a start, there’s also some genuinely cracking dialogue:
‘Sometimes…you just know. I knew my hamster was going to die. She got caught in the spin cycle.’
‘Oh dear, was it curtains?’
‘Yeah, the kitchen ones! See what I mean, how did you know that?’
Well, I laughed.
It is also very well directed. Each scene is cleverly and sensitively staged and shot – the direction is taut, energetic yet unshowy throughout. Each scene has a lovely flow and is lit very well. Motorways have never looked so stylish.
For all its slight indiscipline and the whiff of self-indulgence, it is an enjoyable trip – Capaldi is an engaging and likeable presence, Yvonne is a beautifully played supporting role by Elaine Collins (Mrs. Capaldi, dontchaknow!), in a role that could very well have been irritating, but in Collins’ hands becomes kind and endearing. Capaldi has some sterling support – Richard Wilson, Frances Barber, Callow, Jeremy Northam, Phyllis Logan and Robert James all deliver memorable performances in a script that only tries a bit too hard to climb up the quirky scale.
It’s very much a product of its time – it feels like one of those films that Film 4 used to fund when plenty of cash was sloshing around. (Indeed, the director Stephan Schwartz made Shooting Fish, which was achingly hip in 1997 for about 5 minutes, as achingly hip things tend to be. Oh and Capaldi is in that too! And Schwartz was in Doctor Who in the ‘80s! Phew.)
There’s also something about this film that feels like the filmmakers are trying to reach for a very American style road movie – the offbeat style, the quirky characters, the wide vistas (Of Scotland, at least.), and its perhaps the best shot at it we’ve yet had. Its always fascinated me why we’ve never quite pulled off a British road movie. Is our island just too small? Do our highways and byways lack the romance of the American West? Does our version of offbeat often feel too self-conscious, for a self-conscious nation?
Still, if you love British film, or Capaldi, or Chris Rea who did the very Chris Rea sounding music, it is well worth a watch. It’s trying very hard to do something different, which in a landscape of kitchen sink drama and Merchant Ivory films, was very welcome indeed.
Oh, and Peter Capaldi should have been Doctor Who, much much earlier.
❉ Soft Top Hard Shoulder (Limited Edition Blu-Ray) was released 26 October 2020 on Blu-ray via Plumeria Pictures. Click here to order directly from PlumeriaPics.co.uk (Free Delivery (UK Only)).