Starring Dave Johns and Alison Steadman
Directed by Paul Morrison
Writer-director Paul Morrison has fashioned an endearingly sweet later-in-life romance fable that follows two senior citizens who first meet walking their dogs and then, over the course of several seasons, deal with the joys, pittfalls and pains of what it means to start a relationship at any age, never mind in the autumn of the year.
Right away we meet Dave (Dave Johns, exquisite in “I, Daniel Blake”), when he and his dog are told off in a public park by Fern (Alison Steadman) for his dog not being on a leash. She storms off in a huff, hurrying her pooch along. Wasting no time, Morrison labels this two-minute scene “walk 1.”
Dave and Fern will meet many times more, first by accident and then on purpose, for other shared walks with their dogs. They chat amiably but, in that most English way, speak around the obvious fact they are attracted to one another. Fern has recently been left by her husband for a much-younger woman, and Dave also is grieving a loss (about which we will soon discover much). Morrison tenderly avoids the trap of having Dave and Fern seek only to bury their pain in a new union. They refer to one another as a “friend,” and Fern is quite adamant that sex is not on the docket anytime soon (sex, when it does happen, had me laughing, even though it isn’t played for laughs in any way.)
There are revelations about which I must say little so that the sentiment of the plot’s turns upon these two gentle souls can unfold. Fern, understandably, is upset at Dave for keeping important information from her; Dave didn’t believe he was lying to Fern, but nonetheless he must suffer the consequences anyway.
As in any courtship, Dave and Fern are learning about one another as much as they are discovering things about themselves, including the barriers they have erected to keep further harm at bay. And they must recognize that they are effectively closing themselves off from something new and lovely, even as they stand in their own way.
The acting is magnificent and the writing crisp. Nothing is played for cheap laughs and Morrison’s pacing is righteous. How things turn out for Dave and Fern makes sense, but so would several other possible outcomes.
“23 Walks” is a simple and joyful film but not at all a simplistic one. Its two leads have terrific chemistry and I rooted for them through both pleasant and rough times even as I questioned some of their decisions.
One of the year’s best!
Now available for streaming and in select theaters.