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Director: Chris Menges
Starring: William Hurt, Chris Cleary Miles
Chris Menges is better known for his work as a cinematographer & director of photography than for his work as a director, but the list of films that he's been visually in charge of is pretty damn impressive. The Mission, Michael Collins, The Boxer, Dirty Pretty Things, North Country, Notes on a Scandal, The Reader, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; these are some stunning works of art, films with a lot of visual impact, so hats off to Menges for that. As far as directing goes though, he did a few movies in the 90s, but never really became successful, finding his niche in cinematography instead. With Second Best, we have one of his rare directorial features and perhaps an example as to why he didn't become famous in that role.The Movie
As a small boy, James was witness to violence, anger, and parents with serious emotional problems. Torn between the loving but irresponsible arms of his convict father and temporary English boys' homes, James grew up protecting his mind from the past, guarding against any imagined danger. It's an all too typical story, a boy tossed about within the system, growing more mentality unsteady with each passing year and with each new defense mechanism. No one wants to adopt or even foster a 10-year-old with behavior issues, and so James remained in group homes, attempted to work through his problems with the support of kind teachers, but drew further & further away from his dream of a real family with every passing day.
Graham's childhood wasn't as rough, but it was equally unkind. His mother & father loved each other dearly, but left him mostly out of the fold. And as he grew stranger & stranger, more introverted, more awkward, things just got worse. Fast forward through the years and Graham has become an odd, lonely bachelor still living in the same house he grew up in, still working at the same shop in the same small village that his family has run forever. But when his mother dies and his father grows ill, Graham understands the need for a child, someone to love, someone to talk to, someone to teach, and someone to take care off. James & Graham might not seem such a great match at first glance, but there's a chance these two just might be able to help each other grow in ways they never knew possible.
Set in a little hamlet in South England, Second Best carries with it all the charm of such a place, from the accents to the stone houses, and creates a time capsule feeling, or at least a projected one, letting us imagine that we understand a village like that and the coming & goings of its residents. It's a great backdrop for the story, and really allows us to enjoy Graham as a character, seeing him in his natural setting. William Hurt as the main character of this film was spectacular, exhibiting rare talent, especially for appearing in such a little-known movie. He made it all work, and his depth was the best part of the entire project. I rooted for Graham to find himself, to become happy, to finally fit into the world, and I give Hurt all the credit for making me a fan.
But, sadly, the rest of the film wasn't as strong. The boy was only OK, and would not go on to become an actor, so this one-and-done performance is all we'll ever see from him. He wasn't awful, but I never cared for his character, never wanted him to succeed, only hoping that Graham would be fine with however the situation turned out. And the director wasn't impressive either, with a mood that was choppy at best, editing that never felt smooth. I liked the music of the film, with little touches of Britannia that reminded me of my Nana, and there were a couple side actors that it was pleasing to see in small roles: Alan Cumming & John Hurt. But as a whole, Second Best was only slightly heart-warming, only barely compelling, and never great.The DVD
Video: With an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (Widescreen, Technicolor), the video was just good enough not to be any worse than all its 90s movie relatives. There were some beautiful scenes with Graham & James together, but a good eye couldn't save this movie from mediocrity. The picture quality was fine given the time period, without terrible flaws but never standing out.
Audio: The film was done with Dolby sound, the disc has no audio or language options of any kind, and the sound of the film was passable, again presented as a typical 90s film experience.
Extras: There are no special features on this disc.Final Thoughts
Recommended. Second Best is a chance to see a solid William Hurt performance and one of his more fragile characters. He plays Graham to perfection and really allows us to fall in love with the story, at least as far as his end is concerned. I stopped short of falling in love with the film as a whole though, as the boy's performance and the direction of the movie as a whole weren't up to Hurt's level. There are a few nice scenes, and for a movie from 1994, there are a few strong moments. But not enough comes together to make this a classic or even a must-see. The video is only fine, the audio simple, and there are no extras on this disc. Nostalgia might help perhaps, or curiosity, but don't expect perfection here.