Palace Electric Canberra from 30 July 2020
103 mins, rated PG
I first saw Dave Johns (Dave) on screen in Ken Loach’s powerful 2016 film I Daniel Blake when it was included in one of the British Film Festivals – it was a standout. And Dave Johns – once seen, never forgotten. He is a consummate actor, capable of expressing a world of emotions within an always restrained performance.
Johns and Alison Steadman (Fern) are on screen in 23 Walks for most of its 103 minutes and all other characters are very much bit players, even when they have a major influence on significant strands of the plot.
The film can be read on various levels – at its simplest it is the story of a burgeoning love story in two 60-somethings, both with their demons. In this, it illustrates well the difference between young love and mature love – the latter bringing with it long lives of both joy and disappointment, caution and urgency.
It is also a story about the way dog walkers relate to each other in public places – a dog is a sure-fire way of striking up a conversation, though usually within the limited parameters of dog walking etiquette.
And then more largely it explores the way we each process grief and pain.
Dave and Fern meet walking their dogs in a North London park, the first meeting characterised by Fern’s grumpy rebuke of Dave for not having his beautiful German Shepherd, Tilly, on a leash. Fern is obviously intimidated by the size and breed of this big gentle dog and scoops Henry, her small terrier, up in her arms before stalking off.
Dave is similarly forever gentle, forever trying to do what is right in every field of his life, but as Fern later points out, he is more or less ‘apologising for England’, doing penance for sins he has never committed.
Both Dave and Fern have secrets, pains they do not wish to immediately share. When Dave does share his, it is explosive – not for the fact of it, but because Fern is wounded by his deception. She has been once bitten in an unhappy marriage and is seeking openness. She also has also dissembled, however, and typically when the truth is out, Dave is full of empathy.
As in I Daniel Blake, Dave is a victim of a government bureaucracy which lacks heart, but unlike in I Daniel Blake, he keeps his counsel and endures the harsh treatment he receives. As viewers, we despise the blithe cruelty of this bureaucracy.
Then there are the two charming dogs – Henry and Tilly, the dogs (they do have real names acknowledged in the credits, but we will forever remember them by their character names). They are the cause of Fern and Dave’s meeting and the enablers of the 23 walks during which they build their relationship. The dogs, of course, reflect their owners’ personalities but are quicker to bond and comfort when the need arises. Ah what we can learn from our four-footed friends!
The changing seasons provide a somewhat unsubtle but not unattractive metaphor for the vicissitudes of Dave and Fern’s lives and their relationship as well as charting the passage of time. We are in no doubt that these things take time – as Dave points out in the early scenes of the film. The dogs, he assures Fern (and read for that their own relationship) will work it out and get used to each other – it just takes time.
Some might feel that we could have arrived at the denouement in a lesser number of walks, but I was happy with the gentle pace of this film, the banal and halting conversations, the happiness, awkwardness and flush of mature romance and sex, and the sadness of loss. Like Dave and Fern, we needed time to process all of this, to be one with them as they gradually let down their guards (especially Fern) and arrived at a place of acceptance and forgiveness.
There’s enough hurry elsewhere. I enjoyed the familiarity of these ageing faces and the capacity of the characters to allow us sentiment without undue sentimentality.
- Written & directed by Paul Morrison (Little Ashes, Wondrous Oblivion)
- Dave Johns (Fisherman’s Friends, I, Daniel Blake) as Dave
- Alison Steadman (Pride & Prejudice, Gavin & Stacey, Orphan Black, Life is Sweet) as Fern
- Tilly and Henry