Write what you know, they say, and David Nicholls certainly does that here. An adaptation of his 2003 best-seller about a 1980s working class kid going to university, written by a 1980s working class kid who went to university, this comedy is full of period flavour and has the tang of authentic experience. Nicholls and director Tom Vaughan haven’t left success to chance, however, they’ve pumped all this bittersweet detail into the most durable of genre plots – the romantic comedy – with James McAvoy playing the Nicholls avatar, Brian Jackson, a fresher at the high-end Bristol university (Nicholls’s own alma mater) who is slightly out of his social class and so signs up to join the University Challenge quiz team. Where he meets leggy blonde head-turning posh tease Alice (Alice Eve), seemingly just minutes after having met the bright, socially committed Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who is more in his league.
The drama then consists of watching young Brian throw himself to little avail against Alice’s ramparts while under his nose, waiting if only he knew it… you’re ahead of me. But this really is a case of “never mind the plot, feel the detail” with Nicholls’s screenplay taking time to paint the sense of freedom that leaving home brings, but also the gulf it opens up between the old life and the new.
This is where McAvoy comes in, the go-to guy for a certain sort of well-brought-up British male (Scottish accent optional), he is to the aspiring working class and lower middles what Danny Dyer is to the contentedly working class, a seemingly effortless charmer, playing a series of smart, likeable, cocky but vulnerable characters people identify with. So we are on Brian’s side when he goes home to find there’s a distance between him and his lone-parent mother (Catherine Tate) who made sacrifices so he’d get on, and that his down-to-earth best mate at home (Dominic Cooper) now seems, in comparison to his new university friends, a bit gauche. And we’re on Brian’s side too when he encounters the socially superior lah-di-dah types you meet in the groves of academe (Benedict Cumberbatch’s quiz team captain). Nicholls and Vaughan also score well on painting a picture of the first weeks at university, as uprooted teenagers work out which new group they fit into – the pseuds, the dudes, dressers up, the lumpen others, and so on.
And it’s the 1980s, so The Cure feature heavily on the zeitgeisty soundtrack – as anyone who’s read Nicholls’s One Day will know, music is key to his capture of period – and the patron saints of 1980s awkwardness seem never more appropriate than here.
Does it all end happily? Well that would be giving away too much of the plot, but as readers of One Day will also know, Nicholls is as much about exploiting genre as polishing it, so don’t get too cosy with what looks at first glance like a British version of a John Hughes underdog romance. As for the title, that’s one of the catchphrases of the TV show University Challenge – based on the US show College Bowl – in which opposing teams test their status-defining cultural knowledge, while audiences at home watch the interplay between the social classes. Which is kind of what the film does too.
© Steve Morrissey 2006