Dir: David Thewlis. UK/France. 2003. 94 mins

Ten years ago, Mike Leigh's Naked confirmed David Thewlis as one of the most electrifying actors of his generation. His tour de force earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and a far from satisfactory international career that includes the disastrous remake of The Island Of Dr Moreau and Seven Years In Tibet. Now, it almost feels as if he is starting over with his directorial debut Cheeky, a sweet, soft-centred heart-warmer in which a father and son come to terms with the death of the woman they loved. An uneasy mixture of broad comedy and sticky sentiment, it is more likely to charm general audiences than please critics. Audiences likely to appreciate it the most are probably at home watching similar small screen fare suggesting very modest theatrical hopes, especially in the unforgiving domestic market of the UK.

The strongest asset in Cheeky is Thewlis's own performance as Harry, a gentle, diffident toy shop owner whose beloved wife is killed in a fire. Underplaying throughout, he lends a core of graceful emotional conviction to a film guilty of trying too hard to endear itself. Devastated by his wife's death, his grief is further compounded by a teenage son Sam (Ward) who resents and rejects him. Salvation comes in his wife's final act which was to enter him for a garish television game show called Cheeky in which contestants earn prizes for general knowledge and their ability to trade insults with each other. In the glare of the media spotlight, he meets feisty nurse Grace (Styler) and starts to reengage with life.

Marked by some tender, truthful scenes between father and son, Cheeky is also guilty of narrative devices that maintain the plot simply by withholding crucial information from a key character. A good deal of the misunderstandings that poison relations between Harry and Grace for instance could have been avoided if he had merely informed her that he was recently widowed. A confrontation between father and son is engineered by bad timing and the convenience of an open hotel door. Clumsy contrivances rob the film of some of its emotional integrity.

Clearly enjoying the opportunity to satirise the excesses of television game shows, Thewlis also blunts the impact of those scenes through extensive repetition as his character endures the ordeal of competing in qualifying heats and a cathartic grand finale. Further comedy is supplied by overly exuberant friends and neighbours from Harry's home town who seem to follow his television fame en masse and appear to have taken their inspiration from Ealing comedy and one too many viewings of Waking Ned Devine.

On a superficial level, Cheeky does tug at the heartstrings and prompt the odd smile of amusement or affection. Thewlis has assembled an able cast that includes a fair number of fellow Mike Leigh alumni. There are moments though that hint at a better film that could have cut deeper and shown the edge that would have justified its theatrical aspirations. As always, it will be interesting to see where Thewlis goes from here.

Prod co: Xingu Films/Europa Corp.
Int'l sales: Europa Corp.
Prod: Trudie Styler, Travis Swords
Co-prod: Luc Besson
Scr: Thewlis
DoP: Oliver Stapleton
Prod des: Eve Stewart
Ed: John Wilson
Music: Mariau Alli
Main cast: Thewlis, Trudie Styler, Sean Ward, Lesley Sharp, Ian Hart, Johnny Vegas.