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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ★★
(M) 108 minutes
In a world of superhero blockbusters and other mega-productions that come at you fast and furiously, there’s still room for the opposite: movies that go slow, centre on ordinary people, and promote the appreciation of life’s simple pleasures.
Jim Broadbent sets out on a long journey in The Unlikely Pilgimage of Harold Fry.Credit: Transmission Films
Unfortunately, such movies can be just as contrived and formulaic as their big-budget competition – the latest exhibit for the prosecution being The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a feelgood fable as twee as its title, directed by BBC stalwart Hettie MacDonald and adapted by screenwriter Rachel Joyce from her 2012 novel.
Harold, played with an air of moist decency by Jim Broadbent, is a buttoned-up retiree living quietly on the Devon coast. One day over breakfast he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy (Linda Bassett), a woman he knew years earlier, now dying in a hospice in the town of Berwick-on-Tweed, hundreds of miles to the north.
Impulsively, he sets out to visit her, walking the entire length of England on foot – although he possesses a car, and although his wet blanket wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) frowns on the whole adventure in the manner of Skyler in Breaking Bad.
Penelope Wilton and Jim Broadbent as Maureen and Harold Fry.Credit: Transmission Films
What precisely happened between Harold and Queenie remains a mystery up till the last minute, and he says that he isn’t religious in any conventional way. But we’re nonetheless led to assume that his pilgrimage is both an expression of love and a form of penance.
Equally, the journey is presented as worthwhile for its own sake, especially once Harold ditches his mobile phone and embraces the principle of travelling light.
If he doesn’t break bad he at least breaks free, sleeping rough and learning to live off the land – even as he’s sustained at every turn by the kindness of strangers, including an immigrant doctor (Monika Gossmann) who washes his blistered feet as if he were Jesus.
Speaking of feet, one of the odder vignettes involves a middle-aged shoe fetishist (Nick Sampson) whose anxiety over his younger, unseen male lover hints at a parallel with Harold’s relationship with his rebellious son (Earl Cave), also unseen except in flashback.
There are enough puzzling elements of this sort to prevent the film from being a total snooze – although the puzzles are mainly artificial ones, created by arbitrarily concealing information Harold himself has known all along.
The revelations, when they come, are calculated to trigger sentimental stock responses, as are most of the stylistic devices Macdonald relies on, including the soaring music and the heavy-handed close-ups of the natural world.
It should be emphasised that whatever can be said against Harold Fry, it’s not the genre that’s at fault. After all, the premise of an old guy making an eccentric cross-country journey in hope of fixing the past was also the basis for David Lynch’s masterful The Straight Story.
It’s all in the execution – and by the time we get to the concluding montage where Harold thinks back on the lives he’s touched along the way, we’re closer to Love Actually without the jokes.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is in cinemas from June 8.
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