Director: Tom Vaughan
Cast: James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dominic Cooper, James Corden
Watch Starter for 10 online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be clever.” That’s Brian Jackson (McAvoy) at the start of Starter for 10, and it’s hard to imagine a more different starting point to Goodfellas, as we meet the young Southender as he watches University Challenge, dreaming of being smart enough to go on the quiz show. What turns out to be a monologue during his interview for Bristol University sees him accepted onto an English course, and it’s only a matter of hours on campus until he spies a sign for University Challenge tryouts – and only minutes into that quiz that he meets and falls in love with Alice (Eve). And so the stage is set for a coming-of-age comedy that promises to answer all the questions you expect, all in the right order.
Except, and here’s the thing that ranks Starter for 10 several points above the genre’s other contestants, it doesn’t. Written by David Nicholls, based on his own novel, it’s an adaptation that finds a fine line between meeting expectations and gently steering away from them. There’s the awkward first date between Alice and Brian, but it segues into a more moving conversation about Brian’s loss of his dad. There’s the token best friend from Essex (Dominic Cooper, oozing rough-and-ready sex appeal as Spencer), but he’s fleshed out into more than a working class counterpoint to the middle-class undergraduates. There’s the offbeat mum (Catherine Tate, wonderfully understated), but there’s also a gentle subplot of her moving on to find a new partner. There’s the underdog sporting vibe of University Challenge, but it’s not your conventional victory narrative. Mark Gatiss’ cameo as Bamber Gascoigne, meanwhile, underscores the spot-on 1980s period design, which feels nostalgic but, more importantly, authentic.
The result gives just enough substance and heart to what would otherwise be a string of archetypes, and the cast revel in the chance to bring depth to their roles. Alice Eve’s love interest plays things with an entertainingly snooty air, while Cooper and Tate bring a wealth of affection to the smallest of lines. That gives Benedict Cumberbatch the room to play his role as broadly as possible, bringing laugh-out-loud hamminess to the part of their quiz team captain (“This man has come all the way from the offices of University Challenge!” he yells, mid-audition, at an unsuspecting cleaner). The only person who steals more scenes is Rebecca Hall as political campaigner Rebecca, who befriends (and tolerates) Brian.
Part of the film’s fun lies in seeing a host of next-big-things on their way up, from Cooper and Cumberbatch and Eve and Hall to James Corden and Rasmus Hardiker, as well as Ben Willbond and Charles Dance – plus composer Blake Neely, now the go-to guy for The CW’s superhero TV series. But that pleasure is found most of all in James McAvoy, who delivers a genuinely starmaking central performance as Jackson, balancing naivety and sincerity with a hugely winning charisma. His Brian is foolish and young but earnest and heartfelt, as likeable when he makes dumb romantic decisions as when he gets general knowledge questions right. One moment in Brian’s first date with Alice sees McAvoy turn 180 emotional degrees in the blink of an eye, while his Essex accent strengthens and weakens depending on who he’s talking to. Arriving after his roles in Wimbledon and BBC’s State of Play, and in the same year as The Last King of Scotland, it’s a film that cemented his skyrocketing career trajectory. A sweet, funny rom-com that celebrates the joy of learning above all, Starter for 10 is a charming coming-of-ager that may not answer the questions in the right order, but still gets them right every time.
Starter for 10 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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