Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Sarah Radclyffe; directed by Chris Menges; screenplay by David Cook from his novel; music by Simon Boswell; edited by George Akers; cinematography by Ashley Rowe; sound by Ean Wood; art direction by Roger Thomas; and production design by Michael Howells; starring William Hurt, Keith AllenChris Cleary MilesJane Horrocks, John Hurt, and Alfred Lynch. DVD, color, 105 min., 1994. A Warner Archive release.

Second Best is a small English film with a first-rate, mainly British cast, based on a novel by David Cook, and directed by the cinematographer (Kes, 1970, The Killing Fields, 1984) and director (A World Apart, 1988) Chris Menges.

William Hurt is a Hollywood star with a wide range as an actor, and who has often chosen to do character parts and perform in many independent and foreign films outside the mainstream (e.g., Szabo’s Sunshine, 1999). A cerebral and introspective actor, Hurt invariably gives a distinctive, sometimes brilliant, sometimes self-consciously idiosyncratic performance. In Second Best, he sensitively plays Graham, an unmarried forty-two-year-old postmaster/grocer who lives in a quaint Welsh country village, who impulsively decides to adopt a child.

Graham, an only and totally solitary child, has never fully developed emotionally. He still lives in his parents’ home with his father who has had a stroke. Graham is an intelligent man, with a touch of dry humor, who is courteous and civil with everybody he encounters, but is emotionally disconnected from the people in the village and from himself. Basically this asexual, introverted man has been sleepwalking through his life, and adopting a disturbed ten-year-old boy is a last chance to transform his existence.

The boy he wishes to adopt, James (Chris Cleary Miles), is sullen, suicidal, and volatile —repeatedly acting out his rage—and, according to his housemother at the children’s home, is “unreachable.” James’s mother committed suicide when he was three (James carries a few traumatic memories of that time), and his father (Keith Allen) is a criminal who last spent time with him when he escaped prison and kidnapped him from a school. James romanticizes those few days with his father (who spins tales of being a mercenary, and builds a powerful bond with him) while they camp in the woods, and flashbacks of that time recur throughout the film—the boy dreaming that he and his father will again reunite. Meanwhile, he gives everybody a hard time, including running away from the home.

The vetting process Graham must go through so he can adopt James is an extended one. He must prove to the children’s home that he will be a fit father. The two of them start out wary of each other, and spend an uneasy time together, having difficulty making emotional contact.

Most of the film is built around the sometimes too detailed depiction of Graham and James finally connecting with each other as father and son. The film is also too neatly constructed around both man and boy needing the love they never received in their childhood. Growing up, Graham always felt that his parents’ deepest link was to each other, and he felt excluded. He recalls with great pleasure (“the best time in his life”), a trip he took with his father to the seaside, the one time where his father and he happily related to each other. The rest of the time Graham felt unloved, though clearly he was treated well and never oppressed at home. Yet, the sense of being unloved must have been painful, but it doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation for how emotionally strangled he is as an adult.

Graham and James thus have father issues of different kinds, but both are hungry for love. Both also have protective walls that must be penetrated before that can occur. James has angry fits and break Graham’s china and windows, and an awkward Graham has some difficulty emotionally responding to James’s needs.

Through ups and downs, the relationship develops. James asks Graham to physically comfort him (kissing a scratch on his forehead, giving him a hug) and he complies. They even sing together. James in turn warmly consoles Graham when he breaks down in tears after his father’s death (“I never knew what they wanted”). James tells him, “You’ll be all right,” but then a bit too precociously asks Graham if he ever loved anyone.

Second Best  focuses on the relationship between Graham and his adopted son James (Chris Cleary Miles)

Second Best focuses on the relationship between Graham and his adopted son James (Chris Cleary Miles)

The relationship between them as father and son is fully solidified only after James can free himself from his idealized love of his father. The father melodramatically returns with AIDs, but a transformed Graham asserts himself, and takes hold of the situation. There is still some Sturm und Drang left, but Graham realizes he can’t go back to feeling nothing, and declaims that he won’t be “second best,” as they predictably walk back to the house hand in hand.

Second Best has other characters, including Debbie (Jane Horrocks), an acerbic but sympathetic social worker, and Uncle Turpin (John Hurt), Graham’s wayward, garrulous uncle, but the film’s center is the difficult relationship between Graham and James. In a sense, the film is just a step above a Lifetime telefilm about dysfunctional familial relationships, but Hurt and Miles’s performances grant it another dimension. Hurt avoids turning Graham into a stereotype of a repressed, submerged man. He is perceptive and self-aware, and you can feel that there is something much tougher and expressive underneath the timid persona that is just waiting to be released, while Miles convincingly portrays the shifts in James’s personality from uncontrolled anger, to emotional neediness, to genuine love. Their performances make Menges’s Second Best a genuinely touching, if flawed, work.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).

To purchase Second Best, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2