Take a look at that poster. Soft focus, later life love story, you can see all the grey market clichés coming. Another Hampstead, perhaps? Please, no. We don’t need it – and, despite what the marketeers would have you believe, we don’t get it either. 23 Walks isn’t quite as cheesy as it might appear.
Yes, there’s an older couple at the centre of it. Dave (Dave Johns) and Fern (Alison Steadman) meet by accident while out walking their dogs and, over a series of weeks when they keep bumping in to each other, a friendship develops which looks like turning into something more. Except that putting their previous relationships behind them – his wife has passed away, her second husband has left her for another woman – proves to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. Secrets and changes in their circumstances get in the way too and it looks like they’ll never get together.
It does, however, start out pretty much as you would expect in an almost diary format, numbering each walk the two take together with their respective dogs: the big, friendly Tilly and little noisy terrier Henry, who both play their part in the story, as you’d expect. The scenery is beautiful and bathed in sunshine, his easy going friendliness is getting past her prickly exterior and you can see exactly where this is going. Writer/director Paul Morrison has drawn you in, making you feel so comfortable with his slight little story and the appealing partnership of Steadman and Johns that you’re convinced you know exactly how it’s going to pan out. At which point he changes the tone.
He takes a sharp left away from the beckoning cosiness and takes us deeper into Dave and Fern’s personal stories. His revelation, her angry reaction and the effect on their relationship. Her needing time and finding trust difficult after her husband’s affair. They’re the sort of issues we all accumulate along the way. There’s a dabble in politics as well, harking back to I, Daniel Blake, the film that kickstarted Johns’ career as a straight actor. This time he’s up against the council housing department for rent arrears and then later takes on the health service when there isn’t a bed available for a seriously ill relative.
Essentially, it’s a two hander, with a few peripheral characters who drift in and out. On the outside Johns’ Dave is friendly and chatty, an exterior that belies insecurities and the constant desire to do right by others, even if it means putting himself second. Steadman’s Fern hides behind a sharp tongue, finding it difficult to trust completely but she has a warmth which is difficult to hide. Neither are looking for love as such but, when it comes along, it something they want but just don’t know how to deal with. It makes for an on-screen partnership that’s beautifully observed, tender and sensitive but never descending into mawkishness.
But there’s a side to the film which is very conventional – those sun dappled leaves, the almost twee soundtrack – and you wish fervently that Morrison had taken a few more risks with the cinematography and music to match the rest of the film. It’s to Johns’ and Steadman’s credit that they easily handle the pressure he puts on them to carry the film and take the audience with them as they get closer. A film, then, that manages to put some distance between it and the dreaded “grey market” label, but a more courageous approach would have turned that into miles.
Romance, Drama | Cert: 12A | Parkland Entertainment | 25 September 2020 | Dir. Paul Morrison | Dave Johns, Alison Steadman, Natalie Simpson, Graham Cole. | Watch Video Interview with Dave Johns here.