Dir: Usan Prayad. UK. 2001. 86 mins
Adapted from Lee Hall's award-winning 1996 radio play I Luv You Jimmy Spud, Gabriel And Me is a maudlin coming of age drama tackling familiar Hall themes of bereavement, family unity and the transforming power of the imagination. Despite sensitive handling from director Usan Prayad and another accomplished performance from a teenage newcomer, it is unlikely to emulate the critical or commercial success enjoyed by Hall's previous screenplay Billy Elliot. While without its virtues, it just tries a little too hard to warm the heart and has few surprises in store as it heads to an entirely predictable deathbed reconciliation. Erratic in tone and often mundane in its execution, it is the kind of worthy, small scale project that will struggle to make a significant impression on an unforgiving British market. International prospects are equally modest.
Slight and rather tentative in places, the film never entirely escapes its radio origins as copious amounts of voice over narration are employed to convey us inside the heart and mind of Newcastle schoolboy Jimmy Spud (Landless). An inquisitive 11 year-old loner, Jimmy is obsessed with angels and desperate for a miracle that might save his terminally ill father (Glen). His determination is so strong that he is eventually visited by the Archangel Gabriel (Connolly) who accepts him on a trainee basis. As Jimmy designs his own wings and strives to do good deeds, his father's condition deteriorates and home life grows increasingly bleak.
Like Billy Elliot, Gabriel And Me is firmly located within a working-class family under strain. In Billy Elliot, it was a violent industrial dispute that placed unbearable social pressures on the family unit. Here, it is the legacy of post-industrial Britain that is felt on a deeply personal level. Jimmy's wise, understanding grandfather (Bradley) recalls the glory days of local shipyards that now lie as deserted and quiet as a graveyard. His mother (Rowell) slaves at a local cafe while his welder father is unemployed; embittered and emasculated by his inability to provide for the family. Pestering his elders with questions about God and faith, it is unconventional Jimmy who bears the brunt of his father's frustration, a frustration that inevitably masks a deep love and a hope that his son will have the kind of long, fulfilling life that he has been denied.
Placing a heart-tugging fantasy within a social realist setting, Gabriel And Me feels more calculated and less complex than Billy Elliot. The impossible dream of becoming an angel also lends the piece a much more whimsical tone, especially as the businesslike Gabriel can only be seen by Jimmy and is presumed to be a figment of the boy's vivid imagination and emotional turmoil.
Touching in places, the film struggles to strike the right balance between bruising emotion and escapist fantasy, between stark drama and knockabout comedy. At one point, Jimmy saves a young boy Scout from drowning. Their subsequent friendship involves misguided attempts at resurrection, moonlight encounters and bedroom meetings that are all misconstrued by Jimmy's father but never quite provoke the hilarity that they could.
Attractively photographed by Alan Almond, Gabriel And Me unfolds in sweeping cityscape vistas and dark, shadowy interiors. Technical credits are accomplished and the performances are excellent. Bradley brings a bone-weary quality to the grandfather, Glen's proud, cancer-ravaged father marks a return to form after his drab villainy in Lara Croft and 14 year-old Landless is unaffected and entirely believable as a vulnerable youngster finding his own way to deal with the injustices and uncertainties of the adult world.
Prod co: The Film Consortium
Int'l sales: The Sales Company
Exec prods: Chris Bould, Andrew Hauptman, Ellen Bronfman
Prods: Marc Samuelson, Peter Samuelson
Scr: Lee Hall
Cinematography: Alan Almond
Prod des: Andy Harris
Ed: Barrie Vince
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Main cast: Iain Glen, David Bradley, Sean Landless, Rosie Rowell, Billy Connolly.