Review: ‘Gabriel & Me’

A lonely, prepubescent lad in northern England aspires to a dream beyond his working-class family's ken, which includes transgressing stereotypes of his gender. No, it's not "Billy Elliot" -- but "Gabriel & Me," a less accomplished, more fantastical version of many of the themes in last year's Brit hit, is from the same scripter, Lee Hall.

A lonely, prepubescent lad in northern England aspires to a dream beyond his working-class family’s ken, which includes transgressing stereotypes of his gender. No, it’s not “Billy Elliot” — but “Gabriel & Me,” a less accomplished, more fantastical version of many of the themes in last year’s Brit hit, is from the same scripter, Lee Hall. With a less likable lead, and the rather whimsical idea of Billy Connolly as archangel Gabriel guiding the kid’s aspirations, pic looks unlikely to carve much of a B.O. profile in the wake of the slicker “Elliot,” even though it has several OK qualities of its own. Following its recent preem at the Edinburgh fest, film goes on to U.K. release in early November.

The material actually predates Hall’s script for “Elliot,” coming from a mid-’90s radio play (his first) that was put into development by Samuelson Prods. in 1997. Placed side by side, however, “Elliot” is undoubtedly the more audience-pleasing and better structured of the pair, with its themes more clearly defined, a more robust story arc and better-turned dialogue. Though making its transition to the bigscreen later, “Gabriel” comes over as an initial working out of similar ideas by the same writer.

Sean Landless debuts as Jimmy Spud, an 11-year-old lad in Newcastle, northeast England, who should be crazy about soccer at his age. Problem is, Jimmy wants to become an angel, to do good on Earth and to be able to fly (as he did when his father used to throw him in the air when he was younger).

In a church one day, he writes a job application to heaven and, lo and behold, when Jimmy is later in a toilet stall, Gabriel (Connolly) appears, sans wings, in ordinary dress and with a strong Scottish accent. (Accents are likely to cause some problems for North American auds, especially Landless’ thick Tyneside one.) With a twinkle in his eye, Gabriel says he’ll submit the application for processing.

When Jimmy starts wearing an angelic dress he’s made from stapled feathers and starts spending quality time with a Boy Scout (Jordan Routledge) he rescued from drowning, his dad (Iain Glen) reckons he’s becoming a “poofter.” Worse, his son won’t even defend himself in fights.

However, dad has problems of his own: Emotionally strung-out from being jobless, he also has a fatal lung tumor.

Jimmy gets it into his head that he must save his dad to qualify as an angel. But Gabriel tells him he can’t perform miracles on Jimmy’s behalf: Jimmy must simply “do the right thing.”

Making good use of widescreen in exteriors (shot in both Newcastle itself and the Isle of Man), Alan Almond’s lensing, along with Stephen Warbeck’s score, makes a partly convincing case for Jimmy’s celestial aspirations. But overall, pic has difficulty combining those — and Connolly’s genial appearances — with the rest of the movie, which is basically a working-class family drama about an outsider bullied by his sick father.

Another major problem is Jimmy’s own character, a rather annoying, pugnacious tyke, always answering back, who isn’t made especially likable or charming by Landless’ perf. As the father, Glen is OK but hard, making it difficult to feel for his personal plight. In many respects, the emotional center of the family rests in Rosie Rowell’s nicely calibrated playing of the mother, who loves both son and husband equally, for all their faults. David Bradley contribs an amusing role as Jimmy’s slightly eccentric, but kindly, grandfather.

Gabriel & Me

U.K.

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of a Film Consortium presentation, in association with the Film Council, FilmFour and the Isle of Man Commission, with participation of British Screen, of a Samuelson Films production. (International sales: The Sales Co., London.) Produced by Marc Samuelson, Peter Samuelson. Executive producers, Chris Bould, Ellen Bronfman, Andrew Hauptman. Directed by Udayan Prasad. Screenplay, Lee Hall, based on his radio play "I Luv You Jimmy Spud."

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Alan Almond; editor, Barry Vince; music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Andy Harris; art director, Eddy Andres; costume designer, Mary-Jane Reyner; sound (Dolby Digital), Albert Bailey; associate producer, Rachel Cuperman; assistant director, Martin Harrison; casting, Sarah Bird. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Focus on British Cinema), Aug. 20, 2001. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Dad - Iain Glen Granddad - David Bradley Jimmy - Sean Landless Mam - Rosie Rowell Gabriel - Billy Connolly Ridley - Ian Cullen Scout - Jordan Routledge
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