Film adaptations of Nick Hornby's novels tend to be successful- About A Boy (2002) and High Fidelity (2000) captured the essence of the books perfectly. Now, Hornby's 2005 novel A Long Way Down gets the big-screen treatment. For those who don't know, this is a comedy-drama about suicide.
On New Years Eve, disgraced TV star Martin (Pierce Brosnan) decides to commit suicide by jumping off the top of a London tower block. As he's about to end it all, he's interrupted- by another potential suicide, single mum Maureen (Toni Collette). Soon, they are joined by two others with the same intention- wild child Jess (Imogen Poots) and pizza delivery guy JJ (Aaron Paul). On Jess' suggestion, the four of them sign a pact that they will not kill themselves before Valentine's Day. And so these four very different people become unlikely friends.
On the page, the book is moving, funny, thought-provoking, tender and powerful. Sadly, the film adaptation only captures a fraction of that. Screenwriter Jack Thorne has constructed an uneven screenplay, veering between moments of comedy (some of which are too broad) and moments of emotion (some of which are too saccharine).
Performance-wise, it's a mixed bag. The best performance comes from Toni Collette as the meek and stressed-out Maureen, crumbling under the weight of caring for her severely disabled son whom she loves desperately but acknowledges that he'd have a better standard of care if she wasn't around. You truly feel for her as she's going through all this, thrust into a world she never knew and didn't want to enter (unsurprisingly, there's media interest once the story of the pact is leaked). It's a truly committed performance by Collette who is always a reliable and engaging presence on-screen.
Imogen Poots is also an engaging presence as Jess, the mistress of outrageous and inappropriate comments which is a source of most of the comedy in the film although sometimes it's a bit much. She's nursing a secret pain to do with her family which is given a cursory examination but is never really delved into (although you could argue that it doesn't really need to be). Similarly, Aaron Paul is good as JJ (a late replacement for Emile Hirsch) who initially says he's on the roof because of cancer but there's more to his story than first appears. He gets an emotional speech at the end to explain himself, and it's a credit to Paul's acting ability that he sells it, as in other hands it could have been mawkish or leaden.
However, Pierce Brosnan seems to be in a different movie to the rest of his co-stars. His performance just doesn't fit. I mean, we're not talking a catastrophe of Mamma Mia! proportions but there's no heart to his performance, no soul, nothing to make you really sympathise with him in the first place and no real redemption for him at the end. He remains cynical, grasping, self-involved and self-absorbed, fundamentally unlikeable and when you're asking an audience to care about the group, they need to care about all of them- and I didn't care about Martin, and I couldn't tell you whether it was Brosnan's performance or the script that was the cause.
Other performances are solid enough- Sam Neill puts in a glorified cameo as Jess' father but is very good in it. I could almost see Neill and Brosnan swapping roles and it being a better film, really. There's a one-scene role for Rosamund Pike as Martin's former co-host Penny who gives broadcast journalists a bad name by her exploitative and manipulative questioning of Martin and Jess on-screen. It's an awkward and unpleasant scene which jars tonally and reinforces the media-is-evil message that bubbles through the pieces.
All said, A Long Way Down isn't a bad film. It's intense and emotional in places, funny in others, and Toni Collette's performance is just sublime, but the delicate balancing act that Hornby pulls off on the page just hasn't translated onto the screen.
Rating: 3 out of 5