There was a time — way before the reality-TV chaos of “Top Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and their ilk, and the ubiquitous trend for open restaurant kitchens — when most of us didn’t think all that much about the labor and drama behind the scenes of eating out. Now, we probably overcook the theater of fine dining in our imaginations: Not every perfectly done steak has been screamed over as part of the seasoning.
After a year when many of us have missed out on the restaurant experience, along comes “Boiling Point” to re-whet our appetite for its flash and sizzle. Presented as one continuous 90-minute take, Philip Barantini’s thoroughly absorbing film plunges the audience into one hectic Christmastime service at a high-end restaurant in East London, juggling a dizzy array of courses, characters and subplots that range from plausibly high-stakes to wildly contrived.
Even at its most far-fetched, however, “Boiling Point” retains an essential sense of integrity thanks to the honest, urgent presence of star Stephen Graham. Utterly compelling as an overburdened head chef whose mood swings and spiraling breakdowns never tip over into performative, Ramsay-style showboating, Graham evidently relishes biting into a rare big-screen lead worthy of his talent — though he’s had some practice, having previously headlined Barantini’s BIFA-nominated 2019 short “Boiling Point,” from which the feature has been satisfyingly expanded.
Barantini, meanwhile, made his feature-length debut last year with “Villain,” a London gangster flick with more style and smarts than most of its genre peers. This more ambitious sophomore effort confirms the actor-turned-filmmaker as one to watch on the British scene, with a pacy mainstream sensibility underpinning his resourceful indie credentials. “Boiling Point” has its audience firmly in its grip from the second cinematographer Matthew Lewis’ snaky, agile camera picks up chef Andy Jones (Graham) on his way into work, fielding a call from his ex-wife over a parenting issue that is merely the first of a hundred problems circling in his addled, substance-aggravated brain.
Upon arriving at his industrial-chic modern British restaurant Jones & Sons — a real-life venue, in fact, in London’s buzzing Dalston district, lending an extra lick of authenticity to proceedings — Andy is immediately slammed with one crisis after another. An unannounced health inspection is in progress, ultimately knocking an embarrassing two points off the restaurant’s rating; neat supplies are short; key staff are late; celebrity chef Alistair Skye (Jason Flemyng), a former colleague of Andy’s with a shady agenda, has booked a table for that evening with a top critic in tow.
As service begins, Andy repeatedly butts heads with restaurant manager Beth (Alice Feetham), who cares more about Instagram clout than quality of cuisine. Trusty, no-nonsense sous-chef Carly (Vinette Robinson) is normally a stabilizing influence on her hot-headed partner, but she too is on the warpath. With her repeated pleas for a raise having fallen on deaf ears, she’s on the brink of accepting a job offer at a rival restaurant. Her career doubts and Andy’s domestic woes are the key sources of tension coursing through this already stressed kitchen, though as the camera wanders through the cavernous space, other staff members’ overheard stories spill into the mix: a waitress nurtures elusive acting ambitions, a pregnant dish-washer feels alone and unsupported, a junior kitchen boy tries to hide his self-harming scars.
At the top of the chain, Graham and the remarkable Robinson make for a fraught but intimately attuned double act. While he enters proceedings at full blast, she keeps her frustrations at a lower simmer, eventually blazing into an unfiltered tirade at her employers in the film’s most riveting episode. Behind it, one senses rage at multiple microaggressions against Black women in this elite industry: Elsewhere, across multiple scenes that ring chillingly true, a vulnerable young waitress (Lauryn Ajufo) is bullied by the bigoted patriarch of a particularly demanding party of four.
This staff-centered material is rich enough that one rather wishes Barantini and co-writer James A. Cummings had resisted overcrowding the pan with diner drama that feels less persuasive. Flemyng’s skeevy celebrity villain, in particular, feels more like a construct than a character, while one diner’s heavily stressed announcement of a nut allergy is a narrative time bomb that feels a little too obviously planted. “Boiling Point,” per its title, labors quite strenuously to bring its scattered plotting to a head, though that’s hardly necessary: The film’s everyday workplace drama is gripping enough as it is.
Even when the storytelling dips, however, Barantini’s well-executed one-take conceit carries us right through it. There’s a barreling momentum to the filmmaking that feels true to the cut and thrust of restaurant life, regardless of the script’s digressions. It’s also a film to make you crave the noise and movement and social overlap of dinner out, however cruelly the environment treats some within it. There are images and exchanges here that won’t be easily forgotten next time you literally feed off a chef’s talent, agony and exhaustion, all served on the same china plate.