The agonizing process by which a withdrawn man and his troubled adopted son grow to know and love each other is minutely charted in “Second Best.” Nicely acted and dramatized in all its particulars, the film is nevertheless so modest in its aim and achievement that it will be exceedingly difficult to drum up much audience interest in seeing it, at least theatrically.
Indeed, it is hard to remember the last time either Warner Bros. or exec producer Arnon Milchan was involved in such a small-scale production. One just doesn’t see the major studios these days making pictures about the emotional problems of two difficult people living in a cramped house in a tiny village in Wales, much less one where there’s neither romance nor action. More’s the pity, but that’s the way it is.
Told with the aid of many quick flashbacks and a change in narrative voice, novelist and screenwriter David Cook’s acutely felt story revolves around the deprived emotional lives of 10-year-old James (Chris Cleary Miles) and the 42 -year-old man who would adopt him, Graham Holt (William Hurt). James’ mother is dead and his father John (Keith Allen) is a long-term jailbird. Living a sad childhood in an orphanage, James holds dearly to the memory of his father and the hope that their bond will somehow bring them together again.
For his part, Graham is also motherless, and his father (Alan Cumming) is bedridden due to a stroke. A rumpled, withdrawn village postmaster, Graham has never had a significant emotional contact or sexual experience, but now has had the sudden impulse to adopt a boy, which would be the first assertive thing he’s ever done in his life.
The final reel becomes a bit murky and incipiently sentimental, with director Chris Menges trying to understate the feel-good ending but also underplaying the dramatic payoff.
To a large extent, pic depends upon performance to put it over. A seemingly unlikely choice to play an unworldly Welshman, Hurt lets his inwardness work to great benefit and creates a completely convincing and often touching characterization of a man who tries, with great difficulty, to come out of his shell.
Miles is an excellent match as the deprived, temperamental James, expressing the many faces of boyhood from fearful defensiveness and rebellion to startling precociousness.
Former cinematographer Menges, in his third directorial outing, evinces a great sympathy with the Cook’s material and exercises restraint in the most blatantly emotional moments. It’s adept work on a small canvas.
In line with this, behind-the-scenes contributions are very correct but unobtrusive.