From the outside 23 Walks looks like it is going to be a run-of-the-mill romance between two older member of our society. How looks can be deceiving though. Scratch under the surface of 23 Walks and you discover a brilliantly written film that packs quite a punch as it explores social topics that many other films would shy away from.
The film centres around David (Dave Johns – I, Daniel Blake) and Fern (Alison Steadman – Pride & Prejudice) who innocently meet while walking their two dogs on the moors near their homes. At first Fern is stand-offish with David but as the two begin to meet each day and walk together they become closer friends. The fact that they both have secrets that they keep from each other has the potential to de-rail their friendship though as things come out into the open.
Even a brief read of the synopsis of 23 Walks makes it feel like a film that we have all seen a million times over. The key to getting the best out of the film though is to go into the cinemas knowing nothing about the twists and turns that the film takes as David and Fern’s friendship begins on its journey. It is hard to imagine but if you don’t know what those twists are then this film rides with you with the energy of a suspense rather than a drama.
The power of this film comes completely from the screenplay of director/writer Paul Morrison (Little Ashes). Writing like this is a rarity in films these days. The dialogue between David and Fern at times seems so natural that you would swear that is has been ad-libbed rather than scripted, while the many turns that the plot takes are in no way sign-posted. The result is that as an audience you get the shock and emotional slap that the characters endure as the surprise is revealed to them.
Much like Dave Johns previous film I, Daniel Blake this is a film that explores some pretty deep topics. From looking at what happens when somebody in public housing is ‘moved on’ by the council through to what happens when family members disagree with their aging parents getting involved in a relationship. This film goes deep but never bogs itself down by trying to preach and falling into the trap of getting political. Often a film involving older members of society will also try to portray them in a ‘perfect’ light, 23 Walks never does this – in fact it does the complete opposite and exposes both David and Fern as having emotional hang-ups that make them far from perfect.
As a filmmaker Morrison also knows the power of the expression ‘less means more.’ Scenes such as Fern’s ex getting angry when he realises that Dave has stayed over or Dave’s daughter telling him off over his relationship with Fern stick with you as the film goes on, but Morrison knows that in order for that to happen he doesn’t have to repeat the does ten times throughout the film. Instead the one time it happens is so brilliantly written that it hits the mark and stays there.
The great script also allows Dave Johns and Alison Steadman the chance to shine. Grouped together with his performance in I,Daniel Blake Johns shows that he is a likable actor who is afraid to take on confronting roles – one again he deserves to win awards for his work here, anything else is just wrong. Likewise Steadman was born to play Fern. She plays her uneasiness to a tee and like John makes her character likable to the audience despite her flaws. Together the two pull off two of the best performances you will see in cinema this year.
Thought-provoking, dramatic and at times intense 23 Walks is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a film before watching. The film comes from one of the best screenplays of 2020 and gives its two leads the opportunity to pull off some sensational performances.