I’d like to forewarn you that anyone with an ailing friend or relative, or who has witnessed someone with a duty of care not up to that task, will find that a lot of RADIATOR hits very close to home and is difficult to watch. Fear not though, there is low-key humour sprinkled throughout as well to keep it from being too much of a downer. I see this as a beautiful and worthwhile piece of British independent cinema to seek out.
When Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) returns to his rural childhood home to help his mother (Gemma Jones) care for his ailing and estranged father (Richard Johnson), little does he suspect that this charitable role will take up far more time and energy than he can willfully give. Will his time in the challenging company of Leonard and his doting Maria soften him or reaffirm why he left for London in the first place?
Tom Brown’s film embraces the beautiful and unforgiving power of the close-up, and you couldn’t get more thematically appropriate scenery than the desolate serenity of the Lake District. I went to the lakes a lot as a child and they can be imposing, unforgiving and the very last place you’d want to have to trek to in order to care for an ailing relative. Think of where they go for their miserable holiday in WITHNAIL & I – it’s exactly like that. This region of Northern England is also stunningly beautiful and tranquil; just the place one might want to retire for peace and quiet. So even putting aside their historical fallouts and general dislike for each other Leonard and Daniel are starting from a point of animosity – Daniel has had a long and hard journey to see this old wretch.
The best chapter in the film is an occasion when father and son are forced to get along as Maria leaves for a few days to see friends. They get along famously until they have an explosive argument over, of all things, cutlery. That’s families for you – you have to love them but you don’t have to like to them and you fall out over the stupidest things. Richard Johnson’s final performance is one to savour, a storm of contradictions. Leonard is abrasive but vulnerable, quick to complain but equally quick to brush off any assistance offered with utter indignity. He’s not a nice bloke in short, but he is funny and you wonder how much you’d put up with if he was one of your own relatives. Cerqueira’s obstinate Daniel and especially Jones as the always-warm Maria are saints for looking after him, and the film never pretends otherwise.
Leonard and Maria’s converted farmhouse home is wonderfully ramshackle. I’m sure most people know someone who has lived in a place not so dissimilar. Everything in its place; that place being the floor, leaning against walls, serving as architecturally essential supports for the wider structure or just generally strewn around. Just look at the perfect fit of desperation as Daniel claws through the chaos of his parents’ cutlery drawer looking for a fork, or the ever-present mouse watching their every move from corners of the room.
If I had one criticism, as hard-hitting and soulful as Radiator is, the plot is structured exactly as you’d expect it to be. The moments of pathos appear right on cue, and you can pretty much guess where the characters will be at and how far they will, or won’t have come by the end. But hey, sometimes real life, which is what this film strives to represent, sticks to the script. Cruel twists of fate, ups, downs and in-betweens come at regular intervals and advance all our life stories. If you have any opportunity to track down and watch Radiator, I implore you do so. If nothing else, it’ll make most of you appreciate your own families. SSP