A small-scale character piece which, aside from its own modest but definite achievement, seems to guarantee more work for star Emily Beecham, screenwriter Nico Mensinga and director Peter Mackie Burns (reuniting from a short, Happy Birthday to Me). At several points, Daphne (Beecham) is asked her age, and she takes a few seconds to remember or admit that she’s 31 … though she’s often taken for much younger, a double-edged compliment since that might be as much down to her behaviour as her looks. It’s an echo of a similar strand in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, where 30-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is similarly taken for being barely out of her teens … and maybe even a touch of the sense that approaching 30 also means the imminence of death in the recent Christine. All these films are showcases for their leads, and create very specific characters – Rebecca Hall’s Christine was a real person – who nevertheless seem emblematic of their generation. Beecham’s Daphne and Hawkins’ Poppy would make a nightmare double date – for Daphne’s brittle cynicism and bouts of self-destructive behaviour (reading Zizek as much as the drugs and drink) are as grating as Poppy’s relentless cheer, and both have the habit of talking with strangers (making them true freaks and bizarros in London) on the bus or in the street … and both are constantly ambling into situations any more self-aware city-dweller would see as dangerous.
Daphne argues drunkenly with bouncers who’ve tossed her out of a club (one later tries to go out with her, though the relationship sputters), prepares interesting-looking meals for one that she barely samples before scraping into a bin (or has takeaways delivered by a guy who is shocked at her descent into bedragglement), has random hookups with not-that-great guys (one lecturer stains her blouse but doesn’t have any wet-wipes), is wildly erratic at work (she’s a chef with an indulgent, smitten employer) in a self-sabotaging sort of way, and is minimally (but significantly) helpful when she witnesses a stabbing in a late-night convenience shop. The fallout from this incident means she is offered victim counselling – on her first visit, she dodges every question and walks out when the therapist won’t explain why he has the full set of Harry Potter on his bookshelves, but she returns and tries harder to cough up to problems that were well-advanced before a trauma which actually hasn’t affected her that much. Of course, the film can’t just get by with bitter, yet smart vignettes of a pretty girl you’d not want in your life insulting and alienating everyone around her and so there is some progress in Daphne’s relationships with her ‘enabling’ boss (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), her ailing and spiritually adventurous mother (Geraldine James, locking up those Best British Supporting Actress gongs) and even the counter clerk who got stabbed by a hopped-up white kid. Race is a key, understated theme here – Beecham is very pale and red-headed, with a bit of the young Isabelle Huppert, but she’s surrounded by a London mix of ethnicities, languages, cuisines, music styles and cultures.
All these jittery city chick flicks (other examples: Margaret, Frances Ha) can be accused of indulging their thin, pretty, comparatively well-off, self-obsessed heroines (who seem to be just one psychotic break away from starring in Repulsion) at the expense of folks all around whose struggles are much harder – even the nice mum Daphne spooks on the bus by being more candid than she was with her psychiatrist is probably having a much harder time coping with life than Daphne ought to be. But it’s important to look beyond the screen-hogging lead (Beecham is in every scene, and practically every shot) to pay attention to the city backdrop. This is a great London movie for the era of the Oyster card – making the city as it is now at once gorgeous and tragic, at times weirdly depopulated, at others thriving. Overhead shots of the habitually out-of-it Daphne crossing roads have a minatory tension that keeps the viewer on edge throughout, though in the end the film doesn’t go down the full nightmare route.