When taking your dog to the park, there are a few unspoken - but well rehearsed - social rules one must follow. First, you better pick up your dogs mess, or you are asking for a clip on the ear. Second, you must strike up conversation with the other owners and talk exclusively about your pet, not bothering with futile chats about the weather or married life. This is a very important rule, especially when the dogs become best friends and the owners have nothing else to talk about. I love these dog owner conversations, which include the consistent opener of "what breed is it?", followed shortly after by the always apologetic "she usually plays so nicely with other dogs" - but everyone knows that's a lie.
Something that isn't a rule (but certainly should be) is that when two strangers continue to bump into each other on their dog walks, it is customary to start scheduled meet-ups and form a relationship. Thankfully, in Paul Morrison's first film in over ten years, that is exactly what blossoms from an otherwise non-noteworthy encounter.
'23 Walks' starts with Dave (Dave Johns, 'I, Daniel Blake'), who is out on one of his daily dog walks at the local park when he bumps into an aggrieved Fern (Alison Steadway, 'Dad's Army'), a disgruntled dog owner who insists that all dogs must be on a lead. Being a gentleman and never wanting to cause a stir, when they next cross paths, Dave's dog Tilly is on a tight lead, and he eagerly strikes up conversation. Set against the backdrop of annual seasonal changes, what starts with one walk soon becomes 23, and much like the ebbs and flows of their seasonal surroundings, a middle-aged romantic relationship blossoms, grows, warms, and even falls.
Paul Morrison is back in the director's chair for the first time since his 2008 film 'Little Ashes', and while there is nothing flashy or any image that particularly stands out, he captures a real sense of longing in the the relationship of Dave and Fern. Though '23 Walks' doesn't boast the atmospheric beauty of 'Call Me By Your Name', it does still manage to use its setting as an element of the story. When Dave first invites Fern to his home for a cup of tea, audiences immediately feel the warmth of the gesture - and, of course, the tea - which opens up our vulnerabilities to his tenderness. Dave and Fern have been there and done it all; they are no longer young lovers full of passion and impulse, but what they lack in youth they make up for in romance.
However, as with any romantic film, there are bound to be stumbling blocks, and in the case of '23 Walks', it comes in the form of secrets. It doesn't take too long to find out what they might be hiding, but to Morrison's credit, he chooses not to centre his story on that. It's the right decision, because it's ultimately not really about what mysteries are to be revealed, but rather why they are hiding them in the first place, and how their subsequent relationship picks up those pieces.
To label them as secrets is possibly unfair, as it undervalues the central romantic drama of the film, and suggests that '23 Walks' is really more of a thriller akin to last year's 'The Good Liar'. This is not the case, and it is certainly not a thriller. This is much more like your Sunday afternoon special, filled with romantic gestures, family, likeable - but not perfect - characters, and the English weather.
Set against the backdrop of annual seasonal changes, what starts with one walk soon becomes 23, and much like the ebbs and flows of their seasonal surroundings, a middle aged romantic relationship blossoms, grows, warms, and even falls.
Dave is an incredibly sweet and well-meaning individual. Johns broke into the industry late as the titular character in 'I, Daniel Blake', and he takes some of those lessons with him. Throughout '23 Walks', Dave just wants to do the right thing, but more often than not, the right thing is either unattainable, or out of his control. It's so difficult to see Dave struggle, but he endures, and it makes for compelling viewing. Likewise with Fern, she has her scars and lives with that, and that is ultimately what Morrison frames his film around.
'23 Walks' is about those emotional scars that people live with, especially people like Dave and Fern, who are no strangers to life's hurdles. Throughout life we can expect to confront our demons, and a lot of the time those will leave everlasting traumas, sometimes we will learn how to deal with them, others not so much. Morisson aims to explore the different ways that people will tackle their respective turmoils, and the key to building meaningful relationships with other people, is how we manage those confrontations.
The problem with '23 Walks' is that, however important or relevant those lessons are, it lacks a bit more bite. The chemistry between Dave and Fern is good but not great, and in part that had to do with the script. Morisson was aiming for a Baumbach-like realism in his words, but it ended up feeling flat at times and loose in others. It lacks rhythm and results in some pacing issues, all of which left me wanting a tighter and more focused piece. All the ingredients are here for a wonderful film, and although it goes some way to reaching those heights, it falls just a little short.
'23 Walks' is still incredibly sweet and I have a lot of time for Dave Johns, who manages to hold this film together with his raw energy and realism. I generally enjoy middle-aged romantic films because they bypass all the nonsense and drama you can get with young romance - they know what they want in life and they go for it. This was no exception, and I enjoyed it very much. A gentle, warm and potentially teary 90 minutes, you'll know straight away if this film is up your alley - which is no bad thing.