Dog walkers are an interesting bunch of people. There are those for whom the quick jaunt around the local park is nothing more than a way to give their pet the exercise they need. There are those who resent even having to be out there, especially if it’s a bit rainy. But for others, walking the dog is a way of life and a social activity. They enjoy meeting other dog lovers and, for some older people, it can be a vital means of staving off loneliness. It is two such people who are played by Gavin and Stacey star Alison Steadman and I, Daniel Blake leading man Dave Johns in 23 Walks.
Posters and trailers for the film suggested a movie as gentle as, well, a leisurely dog walk. Writer-director Paul Morrison offers very few surprises on that front. Organised around the titular sojourns, the movie follows the tentative romance between Steadman’s middle-class divorcée Fern and the affably comedic Johns as retired nurse Dave. They meet by chance while out walking – Fern wants Dave to put his German Shepherd dog on a lead while her tiny Yorkshire Terrier walks past – and gradually become closer over a series of chance meetings.
23 Walks manages to avoid the trap of tedium – it’s gentle, not dull. This life is largely provided by Steadman and Johns, who are reliably excellent in their own right and prove to be a dynamite team. Morrison’s script sketches both Fern and Dave as believable, real and as complex and full of contradictions as anybody who has lived into their seventh decade. This film is a smart depiction of how dating in your golden years is rife with difficulties – the inevitable baggage of life.
The problems arise with the way that baggage manifests in the story, crowbarred in at the midpoint as if the structure has been cribbed from an edition of Screenwriting for Dummies. It feels like contrived conflict in a movie that had previously thrived in its very natural approach to these two people trying to work out whether their growing affection is worth demolishing their personal protective walls for. It’s a stumble from which the movie does ultimately recover, but it takes time for it to find its feet again.
23 Walks also has a refreshing lack of scruples in its depiction of sexuality among older people. When Dave first asks Fern over, he stresses that it’s “not for sex, just for the company” and there’s a definite fear of crossing that particular Rubicon. Dave’s annoyance at Fern’s noisy electric toothbrush feels like a likeably intimate watershed moment. Morrison doesn’t overplay his hand in terms of sex, but makes it clear that these characters have just as much sexual desire as anybody else, despite the complexities of their marital situations.
It might have gentle trappings and the whiff of a Best Exotic Marigold Footpath tale about it, but 23 Walks is a cleverer and more interesting movie than that suggests. It’s heartfelt and warm, while possessing a wit and frankness that’s uncommon in films clearly designed for the midweek morning, tea and biscuits crowd. It softballs and mangles a couple of big political issues – not least the crooked social housing system – but also provides a great vessel for two treasured British stars to tell a story that is as compelling as it is conventional.
Dir: Paul Morrison
Scr: Paul Morrison
Cast: Dave Johns, Alison Steadman, Marsha Millar, Natalie Simpson, Graham Cole
Prd: Stewart Le Marechal, Anna Mohr-Pietsch, Maggie Monteith
DOP: David Katznelson
Music: Gary Yershon
Run time: 102 minutes
23 Walks is in UK cinemas from 25th September.