Starter for 10 (2006)

In 1985, against the backdrop of Thatcherism, Brian Jackson enrolls in the University of Bristol, a scholarship boy from seaside Essex with a love of knowledge for its own sake and a childhood spent watching University Challenge, a college quiz show. At Bristol he tries out for the Challenge team and falls under the spell of Alice, a lovely blond with an extensive sexual past.

Sometimes it's not about knowing the right answer.
Starter for 10 is directed by Tom Vaughan and adapted to screenplay by David Nicholls from his own novel of the same name. It stars James McAvoy, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Catherine Tate and Elaine Tan. Music is by Blake Neely and cinematography by Ashley Rowe.
Set in 1985 England, working-class student Brian Jackson (McAvoy) navigates his first year at Bristol University - which lends him the opportunity to feature on his favourite ever TV Quiz Show - University Challenge.
I have never read the book so have no frame of reference there, thus the complaints from devotees of the written source are null and void to me. For I absolutely loved this film, a fresh and breezy coming of age comedy that's tinted with dramatic intelligence. How nice to have a pic of this genre ilk that's not built around trying to lose one's virginity, or standing up to bullies etc. For sure there's a whole load of angst on show, a bit of class distinction dichotomy, the perils of formative fumbling romances, and of course whimsy. Yet the framework of education, the thirst for knowledge and an understanding of the problems evident in the world at time of pic's setting, all make this a smarter than your average bear British rites of passage piece.
Cast are on splendid form to make the multidimensional characters work (each main character moves away from being mere caricatures). McAvoy is splendidly affable as Brian, who is still nursing the loss of his father years previously, and then has to watch as his mother (Tate) takes a lover - the local ice-cream man (John Henshaw). It's no easier at University, where he lusts after the blonde bomber (Eve) when in fact he obviously should cop on to the fact that the girl for him is bleeding heart socialist Rebecca Epstein (Hall) - but she isn't the quiz type! McAvoy has a good comedy way about him, gawkish but lovable and perfect when portraying Brian out of his depth in certain scenarios.
Of the others it's Cumberbatch who steals the show as Patrick Watts, an absolute toff, an upper class twit who has no comprehension of the working class system and the perils within that structure. He is burned by his miserable failure on University Challenge the previous year, his inadequacies and stubborness blinding him to the benefits that others around him can afford him. The facial expressions, the posh vocab speak and the need to be in charge are brought vividly to comic life by Cumberbatch. Eve smoulders as Alice, but deftly plays her vulnerabilities, Hall has her character down pat, while Cooper, Tate and James Corden leave favourable marks. As do Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan in unforgettable scenes as Alice's parents.
The whole play is covered over with an 80s soundtrack, mixing student favourites with punky pop tunes, while the period detail for Brian's home life prior to going to University (Southend-On-Sea) has been given great nostalgic thought. A lot of the humour is sure to be too British for none UK folk, more so those not familiar with what the mid 1980s were like in Britain, while it has to be acknowledged that where the story ends up holds no surprises. Yet this holds many pleasures for the right audience, so fingers on the button and see if you get this starter for 10.

Scion Films, BBC Films, HBO Films, Neal Street Productions, Playtone, Scamp Film and Theatre Ltd. by Tom Vaughan, David Nicholls.
Stars: James McAvoy, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Joseph Friend.

Genres: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Sport

Keywords: sex fight television protest politics scholarship quiz show party love marijuana student university theft injury


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