Alice Eve, James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall in Starter for 10

Starter for 10

 

 

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.

 

 

Starter for Ten – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Starter for 10”

  1. I attended the world premiere of "Starter for Ten" at the Toronto International Film Festival. First things first. Just as director Tom Vaughan did in introducing the film, let's get the explanation of the title out of the way. The plot centers around a group of university students competing on "University Challenge," a popular UK quiz show in which the host begins by announcing, "Starter for Ten…" The American equivalent would be, "I'll take Famous Armadillos for 20, Alex." Now that we're set in place, let's get set in time.

    This is a period piece — 1985, to be exact. And make no mistake about it — the filmmakers went all out to recreate the mid-80's — sets, costumes, hair and, most importantly (for this writer, anyway) the music. And oh, what great songs. That had me from the word "go." Finally, we need a protagonist. One who is captivating enough to command 90 minutes of our time. And this is, perhaps, the crowning achievement of this film. His name is James McAvoy, and he had no less than three films screening in Toronto this year. Talk about prolific. Though a bit older than the character Brian Jackson, he's convincing as a teenager off to discover himself and of what he is capable, in school, life, and affairs of the heart. He wins us over because he commands the screen and the script, and has the eyes of innocence and vulnerability with which we can all identify. He is everyman — every boy/man — and no doubt we see our own coming-of-age through his eyes. Throw all those elements together with a compelling love story and you have a formula for success. I asked McAvoy after the screening what his most difficult scene was. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that he becomes emotional at times, and quite convincingly. He told me that he had to keep reminding himself that it was Brian who was sad, not James. That's powerful stuff. This is a sweet, moving film which left me wanting more. I'll take "Starter for Ten," and I think you will, too.

  2. Surveying the wreckage of numerous other such films – burdened at their outset with flimsy premises, one-dimensional characters, stale gimmicks that coast on the fumes of pop cultural trends, and implausible "meet-cute" situations – which could not be sustained even with big-name talent, inestimable budgets, and plague-like advertising campaigns, I was understandably sceptical as to how the "romantic comedy" aspect of this film might play out when I first sat down to watch it. In retrospect, I honestly couldn't have been more pleased. Rare indeed is the occasion when I have walked out of a theatre feeling unambiguously good about what I saw, believing that it was well worth the time and money I spent to watch it.

    The story forming the basis of "Starter for 10" is handled with a great deal of humour, sensitivity, and intelligence. At no time did any part of it feel forced or contrived, nor was it condescending. Testament to this film's openness and accessibility, the emotional connection that I formed with the primary character (James MacEvoy – may he have a long and distinguished career ahead of him) was subtly cultivated throughout, reinforced by simple – yet heartachingly truthful – moments of confusion, awkwardness, uncertainty, and disappointment of the kind anyone might experience (and probably has) in similar circumstances. "Starter for 10" masterfully captures the spirit of that time in one's life wherein a person fully enters the world and begins to establish her- or himself as an individual.

    So often, and unfortunately, it is the case that I see people on the screen with whom I cannot identify, in situations to which I cannot relate (this is typically due in part to the performers' overblown celebrity status and the general "Hollywood" gloss that is spread thickly over the top of everything). Not so where "Starter for 10" is concerned.

    Perhaps it's no coincidence that "Starter for 10" references "The Graduate," since I believe it shall, in time, prove itself a worthy descendant of that film's legacy and subsequently receive the higher profile that it deserves.

  3. Starter For Ten (three stars)

    Director Tom Vaughan Writer David Nicholls Stars Ian Bonar, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Tate Certificate 12A Running time 96 minutes Country UK / USA Year 2006

    Don't let the pathetically weak opening scene – a flashback of a university applicant as a boy, watching University Challenge and guessing the answers – put you off. Starter For Ten actually manages to get better. Although nominally about qualifying to be on the TV famous game show, the film is really a light-hearted coming-of-age drama set in the 80s. It has convincing performances and a lovingly recreated period of Thatcher Britain, when corduroy was cool and Kate Bush was for intellectuals.

    Working class Brian was not born clever – he has to work at it. Gaining entry to a posh university, he meanders through undergraduate days with a classic dilemma: do you fall in love with the intellectually attractive brunette or the blonde goddess? Karl Marx, Freud and John Lennon, like smoking hash and learning how to do blowbacks, are all part of the social landscape of what is trendy and what isn't. Half way in, the film subject matter allows plenty of social commentary on the irksome British class divisions that penetrate romance, friendship and the University Challenge team.

    Versatile Catherine Tate puts in an amiable performance as Brian's ever supportive and cooing mother: she's having an affair with the ice-cream van man ("you can hear him coming"). This enjoyable no-brainer of a movie is aided and abetted by a blistering 80s soundtrack with bands such as The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Yazoo, The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Undertones – and Kate Bush.

    Starter for Ten is not searing drama, but it does make a pleasant and worthwhile trip down nostalgia lane. The characters are ones we can love and care about and the movie mostly avoids predictability and cheese. If "the most important questions in life are the ones we already know the answer to," and are not exactly rocket science, the subject matter of Starter For Ten is a welcome and unpretentious antidote to the plethora of similar American teen comedies. If you like the music, it's worth going for that alone.

  4. I just seen this film at a surprise screening in Glasgow and I would recommend it to all. For one it features the amazing talents of James macavoy who doesn't disappoint in this slightly coming of age, slightly romance, slightly comedy drama which turns the world of relationships inside education upside down from deep crushes to background influences. The main appeal of this film was its ability to assault the viewer with pieces of hilarious wit that seemingly come from nowhere and features an amazing 80's soundtrack including the cure, undertones and new order. Its main downers however is a host of other actors that don't really get the attention they deserve such as the room mates that seemed to be quite interesting characters and even the female lead was given less of a personality and more of a distant "that girl you view from afar who you may or may not get at the end of the movie" and she wasn't necessarily poorly acted I just felt there could have been more development to her. But other than that the film was filled with witty and somewhat realistic situations that you could compare with to some extent which added to that air of authenticity that the good ol' British movie is good for. 8 stars for acting, writing, great soundtrack and well shot. -2 stars for less character development and being somewhat predictable near the climax.

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