“Second Best” is such a splendid, intimate film you worry that it’s going to get lost in the thicket of much bigger, far more highly publicized fall releases. The irony is that for all its modesty of scale it has the universal appeal of a richly realized father-and-son relationship, portrayed by William Hurt, in one of the finest performances of his career, and by a remarkable newcomer, neophyte actor Chris Cleary Miles.
The crux of the matter is that Hurt and Miles are not in fact father and son. Hurt, accent-perfect, plays Graham Holt, a 42-year-old bachelor, the grocer/postmaster of a small picture-postcard Welsh town. He has lived his entire life in the drab but cozy house attached to the store, but his mother has now been dead for 18 months and his father is bedridden and speechless from a stroke. But as Graham later on tells Miles’ troubled 10-year-old James: “To be nothing, to feel nothing, doesn’t work.”
Director Chris Menges and writer David Cook, in adapting Cook’s novel, crosscut between the past histories of Graham and James until they cross paths. James is haunted by a traumatic event he witnessed as a toddler; the meaning of his fragmented memories of it are fully revealed only at the film’s climax. Motherless and his father imprisoned, James grows up in an orphanage. The devotion of Graham’s parents, on the other hand, was so complete as to shut him out of their love. As a result, Graham has developed a diffidence so inhibiting that we can actually believe that, as physically attractive as he is, he could put off women. In his need for love and to ease his loneliness, however, he has no real idea of what he’ll be getting into in trying to adopt a child.
Jane Horrocks’ tart social worker makes it clear to Graham that as a single, middle-aged male he’s going to have to settle for an older, difficult child. The film’s crucial underlying strength now emerges, which is in its determinedly unsentimental, unhurried (yet not slow-paced) depiction of the prickly development of a relationship between man and boy that is at all times fraught with uncertainty because of the boy’s giving in swiftly to terrible rages. The question is whether Graham will be able to assert himself strongly and wisely enough to hold on to James.
In any event, the film proceeds flawlessly under the controlled yet unobtrusive direction of Menges, the gifted cameraman who turned equally gifted director with the memorable “A World Apart” with Barbara Hershey. There are other sterling performances from, among others, another notable Hurt--John Hurt--as Graham’s raffish uncle and from Keith Allen as James’ loving but feckless actual father. “Second Best” is so wrenchingly effective you hope fervently that Menges will freeze his final frame at precisely the perfect moment--and he does.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic element s. Times guidelines: It contains discussion of adultery, other complex adult issues.
William Hurt: Graham Holt
Chris Cleary: Miles James
Keith Allen: John
John Hurt: Uncle Turpin
Jane Horrocks: Debbie
A Warner Brothers release of a Regency Enterprises and Alco Films presentation of a Sarah Radclyffe/Fron Film production. Director Chris Menges. Producer Sarah Radclyffe. Executive producer Arnon Milchan. Screenplay by David Cook from his book. Cinematographer Asley Rowe. Editor George Akers. Costumes Nic Ide. Music Simon Boswell. Production designer Michael Howells. Art director Roger Thomas. Set decorator Sam Riley. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
* In limited release at the AMC Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 652-1330.