The personal experience of looking after one’s aging parents rings achingly true in “Radiator,” the directorial debut of Tom Browne, co-writer of 2001’s “The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz.” Depicting an adult son trying to support his long-suffering mother as she deals with her unraveling yet domineering husband, this family drama echoes Michael Haneke’s “Amour” in its subject matter, although the grotty setting couldn’t be further from that film’s chic Paris apartment. Flashes of dark humor and deeply resonant performances by the two senior actors (Richard Johnson, Gemma Jones) should help sell this specialty item to select audiences following a well-received London Film Festival bow.
In choosing to set his film at the real Cumbria stone cottage of his deceased parents, Browne takes advantage of a striking Lake District location and a chaotically jumbled interior, which no set decorator could ever hope to match. It’s immediately clear that Mariah (Jones) and especially Leonard (Johnson) are resistant to change, accepting of disorder, and not remotely fazed by the regular incursion of mice into their home. But life has taken a significant turn for the worse now that Leonard refuses to get up from his chair, eat, sleep, or use the bathroom.
Now arrives adult son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira, the film’s co-writer), summoned from his city life by his mother to take charge of the situation. Mild-mannered, seemingly worn down by the cares of the world, and evidently considered a failure by his father, Daniel struggles to assert his authority. Leonard, meanwhile, assumes a conspiratorial tone with his wife: This whole charade has surely been dreamed up just to make their poor son feel useful, for a change.
Specificities of behavior — Leonard’s eccentricities include slicing slivers of candy bars with a scalpel, and cutting off the corrugated portions of drinking straws — gradually accrue, giving “Radiator” the beguiling conviction of real life. Johnson, aged 87, imbues the character with calm command, offering a withering critique of close family relatives, while seemingly giving no regard to his own mental and physical deterioration. Leonard might be maddening to know, but he’s certainly fascinating to watch.
Browne, who has a solid film acting career under the alternative name of Tom Fisher, elicits performances of notable subtlety from both Jones (with whom he acted in “Shanghai Knights”) and Johnson (the inspired suggestion of leading U.K. casting director Fiona Weir). The filmmaker’s long career as actor, writer and shorts director may provide a clue to the surprisingly star-peppered roster of executive producers for this modestly budgeted effort, which includes Rachel Weisz and Eon’s Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. For Broccoli, “Radiator” represents a happier creative outcome than her other recent foray beyond the Bond franchise, “Silent Storm,” which was likewise presented at this year’s London Film Festival.