A young man, afflicted with incurable cancer, faces his 29th Birthday, knowing “[t]here won’t be a 30th.” Calmly facing his demise, he’s done what anyone would want to do: set up a final trip with his three closest friends, something that would let him feel alive. He’s going to die soon, so he should experience life to the hilt for one last time. It’s a good plan.
Third Star follows James, Miles, Bill, and Davy as they travel along the coast of Wales; they’re hiking (and boating) to a spot James knew as a child, a place he wants to visit again. The length of the film is devoted to their interactions and their journey. The film’s strength is revealed as each of the men acts exactly as old friends would; they squabble, pick on each other, provide support…
This movie, from the get-go, is a bitter pill – a celebration of life that’s focused on its tragic end. It helps that they cast the consummate dramatic lead, a man with one of the best names of all time: Benedict Cumberbatch. Seriously, if I were a master thief, billionaire, or top agent – and I had a super-car – I’d probably give it that name.
All of the performances are fine, credible and layered. The standout, of course, is Cumber-bizzle, who plays a perfect sufferer. His role is smart enough to have thought about what he wants, and how he wants it to happen. James is also complicated: he’s using his friends, asking more from them than anyone else should, pushing people in a lousy way to confront their own lies and ambitions.
Worst of all, James flatly uses his condition to have his way – how are you gonna say, “no, I won’t help you dumb something risky and stupid,” when your close friend is about to die? All of the lead’s flaws are on display: shifting moods, abuse of pain meds, getting tossed into a fight he couldn’t possibly assist in… Our unfortunate protagonist has some thoughtful pals, but they enable his every mistake and condone a lot of his mercurial, slightly-twisted behavior.
As the film progresses, the storyline’s arc is less like a roller-coaster, and more like getting sick. The emotions flow like a night of partying until you’re ill – or perhaps it’s more like quitting a bad habit: the emotions are positive, then unrealistically positive, then high – soon after, everything is sad, grim, contentious, then stark. After everyone’s come back down, it can become positive again.
Unfortunately, TS is going to be controversial for technical reasons. James is obviously a person who may be suicidal. Drugs are abused throughout, there’s “strong language,” comedic “violence,” and the most “mature theme” possible – a painful, undeserved death. There’s more to say on this front, but you should discover that for yourself…
Star does justice by its dark topic: we’re not spared the embarrassment or unpleasantness of terminal illness. A pal has to watch James as he goes to the bathroom. The poor sick guy can barely walk – he’s pushed along, picked up, and eventually carried. Cumberbatch presents a man who’s determined to face his end bravely and fiercely – but who can’t quite hide the fear, resentment, and desperate need he feels.
I won’t stop commending this picture for a willingness to portray someone who is a compelling victim that’s also a scared, abusive, conflicted ass. This pull-no-punches approach does best by James, of course. The picture is a little uneven, even forced, with the actions and lines given to his friends. By this, I mean that we (of course) also come to confront the big issues in their lives, and that it has less impact and background for support.
This is actually a flaw for Third Star, as it doesn’t allow the three supporting parts enough personal time to establish a real connection with their characters. The players are all good at their jobs, but the underlying problems in their lives always tend to come out like a confession moment from a WB show : out of the blue,drama that’s both cliched and not given enough time to be effective.
Another problem is that this movie is extremely male-centric. I don’t care about being pc, but it may not interest some women – if you don’t want to see a movie about a bunch of dudes walking and talking about themselves, then watch something else. This is a talky, smart, emotional picture – it focuses on the end of a life, but a lot of its time is dedicated to guy-stuff.
Although women rarely receive enough equal, fair time in popular art and entertainment, the British can have this particular vibe where the men have non-homosexual relationships that are so intense, they may as well start kissing. At least, many works from the UK (e.g., plays, film, novels) make the most intimate connections the male-male ones. Simultaneously, these works do use female characters, but all the action really goes on among the mates. Thus, my simple warning: women get less time here than in Stand By Me – females are mentioned, and can be a source of conflict or discussion, but are only important insofar as they push the men.
And, a British flick about “best bros” doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t see the same cliches found in their American cousins. Brits play football but without padding, remember… So most of the manly tropes are the same, just with a different accent – there’s wrestling, provocation, competition… These dudes get into a fight for no reason, with strangers and each other.
Fortunately, the script is fairly smart – even if the actions of the characters can come off as naive, ridiculous, insane, or stupid. The cast is very able, the scenery of Wales is gorgeous, and the cinematography is done with skill and style. The score is moody, non-intrusive, and noticeably winning when it sets out to be.
What I’m getting at is that Quality abounds here, and nothing about TS ever suggests that it didn’t have a big budget. Flaws aside, everyone involved in this production should be proud of themselves.
Although this is a sobering film about tragic circumstances, Third Star is a good drama, a fine actor’s showcase. If you’re not familiar with Benedict Cumberbatch, you should take the chance to see how forceful and careful and skilled he can be. I also really like a lot of what the screenwriter did, as well as how the director and cinematographer/dp chose to shoot the movie. You should definitely watch this if the basic story piques your interest at all.
Find Third Star on ITunes and check it out.
But I’d want to raise that rating a little…