It’s not that unusual to have a musical in a crime setting. Think Guys And Dolls, think West Side Story – classics but, of course, musicals of the old school with show-stopping numbers, big dance sequences and everything else that goes with it. But those traditional favourites are essentially shows. The Score isn’t. It’s a film and a musical, it’s a low budget British movie with big ambitions and there are times when those aspirations get the better of it. But not always.
Mike (Johnny Flynn) and Troy (Will Poulter) are a couple of small-time criminals with a big job to do. In a bag, there’s £20,000, money that’s going to transform their lives. But first there’s “the score”, a handover that will make it all happen. The location is a down at heel roadside café, they get there first and then they have to wait. As time passes and Mike talks on the phone to the people they’re waiting for, Troy has a very different experience. He starts to question the choices he’s made in life, becomes increasingly conscious of the danger heading towards him. And he falls in love with the café’s waitress, Gloria (Naomi Ackie).
There’s a decidedly literary, often Shakespearean, thread running throughout the film, from Troy’s tendency to dip into quotations to the Romeo And Juliet aspects of his relationship with Gloria. Even the seemingly never-ending wait for the other crooks has a whiff of Waiting For Godot about it, and often it’s there to give the scenes a touch of incongruous humour as the narrative moves towards its climax and answers all the questions lingering in our minds. So how do the songs, also written by Johnny Flynn, fit with this?
Rather than move the action along, they’re more like internal thoughts – should we say soliloquies? – and they work well enough, but only up to a point. What they don’t do is give us as much insight into the characters as we would expect and the gaps definitely show. But on the plus side, Ackie has a beautiful voice and it’s easy to see why she’ll be back on our screens later this year as Whitney Houston. Her duets with Poulter are warmly endearing and the two have an easy on-screen chemistry. But the songs highlight the film’s biggest challenge: for all the skill and care that’s gone into them and its other elements, the result isn’t the cohesive whole it should be and that the talent on show deserves.
That said, this is still an impressive debut from director Malachi Smyth, not so much in what he delivers her, but more importantly in what he promises for the future. Most impressive is his fearlessness, taking something familiar, giving it a really good shake and producing the unexpected and the thought-provokingly engaging. In a year which has produced some startling debuts from British directors, from Philip Barantini’s pressure cooker Boiling Point to this week’s See How They Run from Tom George, Smyth firmly stakes his claim to be on the list of new talent to watch out for.
Drama, Musical | Cert: 15 | Republic Film Distribution | UK cinemas from 9 September 2022 | Dir. Malachi Smyth | Will Poulter, Johnny Flynn, Naomi Ackie | Watch our interview with director Malachi Smyth.