Love story set amongst English laborers nagged by distractingly under-written supporting character
One of those struggling-class, slice-of-life, gray comedies that the English seem to be cranking out at a rate of six or seven a year lately, "Among Giants" has the significant advantage of having been written by Simon Beufoy, who penned "The Full Monty," this genre's biggest hit.
It also boasts a pair of engrossingly honest, emotionally raw but reserved performances by Pete Postlethwaite ("Romeo + Juliet" and the similarly themed "Brassed Off") and Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie"), starring as the foreman of a handyman crew and the backpacking nomad whose feelings for him have her thinking about staying put for the first time in her life.
But there's one big problem with "Among Giants" -- a third, ostensibly central character seems to have been promoted from supporting role status without any thought to fleshing him out to justify his extra screen time.
The character is Steven (James Thornton), one of Postlethwaite's ruddy English day laborers, who have been hired to paint 15 miles of power towers in three months for 90 quid a day -- the steadiest work any of them have had in ages.
In the beginning, Steven figures to be important to the plot somehow -- perhaps as a corner of a love triangle. But after an early scene in which he goes out of his way to impress Griffiths' pretty, self-reliant Australian adventurer (by scaling the walls of a pub to show off his rock climbing skills), he becomes this rudderless, sullen malcontent, so vaguely drawn that his motives, desires and relationships muddy at best.
The character's near-uselessness is maddeningly distracting in what is otherwise a exemplary sample of simple yet delightfully stimulating, and uniquely British, storytelling.
Centering the action around the grubby crew's race to finish their job on time, first-time director Sam Miller infuses the story with an understated sense of humor and makes cinematic use of the utility towers as a backdrop for the heart of the film -- the fervent but ultimately laborious relationship between romantically doleful Ray (Postlethwaite) and stubbornly independent Gerry (Griffiths).
When Miller stays focused on the romantic tension and emotional baggage between these restless lovers, "Among Giants" shines. Postlethwaite's expressively chiseled face that cracks into a kind and blinding smile makes him an uncommon choice for a romantic lead, but his deep sincerity and infectious charm are understandably seductive to Gerry. (Although Postlethwaite's best scene is a visit to his ex-wife, thick with resentment and animosity.)
Griffiths keeps pace, playing the struggle between her heart and her intrinsic wanderlust subtly at first, but Gerry gradually begins to sabotage herself over her fear of settling down.
Ribald but good-natured ribbing is the hallmark of the scenes with the painting crew -- of which Gerry becomes a member, to the initial chagrin of Ray's beer-swilling, butt-scratching bunch -- and these scenes counter-balance the movie's heavier emotional elements.
I found myself quite invested in "Among Giants." Although it is not as riotous as "Monty," its intimacy and characteristically gruff laughs make it a similarly astute observation of the English factory town working-class.
If only it were easier to ignore the ambiguous, underdeveloped Steven. It's hard to focus on the engaging performances of Griffiths and Postlethwaite when part of your mind is busy trying to figure out what, exactly, the guy is doing there. Is he is Ray's friend or a relative? Is he falling for Gerry, too?
I really enjoyed this movie, but if these questions were more readily resolved, I would have liked it better.