It’s always nice to see a film to lay its cards on the table at the outset. Imagine my delight when Jamie Adams’ latest feature Bittersweet Symphony opens with a particularly saccharin Christmas celebration, suddenly interrupted by Submarine’s Craig Roberts. Playing ex-boyfriend to Suki Waterhouse’s Iris so obnoxiously, it’s impossible to believe that the family don’t throw him out at the earliest opportunity. When this lead weight of an opener then transitions to a needless time-jump to five days earlier, it’s safe to say the film has shown its hand.
Bittersweet Symphony is a true stinker of a film. Not a technical disaster of dodgy CGI, editing or staging. No, this is closer to something on the level of The Room, albeit with slightly more competent performance and direction. A human drama seemingly written by someone with only a passing understanding of human behaviour, and an even worse sense of plotting and humour.
Waterhouse stars as a young musician making her first feature film soundtrack. However, when her mother (Claire Cage) falls terminally ill she is forced to return home and try to finish the album there. Determined to see her meet the deadline her producer dispatches Iris’s idol, veteran musician Eleanor Roberts, played by Jennifer Grey. Which seems like a significant leap in logic, especially when it is revealed that Eleanor is supposed to be living with them and Iris has neglected to tell her family about any of this.
One of the biggest problems facing the film is that neither of these two storylines are developed to any moving degree, much less allowed to intertwine. Iris’s Mum is afflicted by the vague sort of movie terminal illness that presents no symptoms or sense of deterioration. That fact that mum is hospitalised off-screen for the first half robs us of any opportunity to become attached or empathise with Iris’s anxiety at the impending loss. It’s never clearly established when Iris returned home what her familial relationships are like or even how she is helping. She and her family simply muddle through a series of disconnected scenes with a sense of domestic disorder. Which admittedly is how most British families handle bereavement, but it hardly helps communicate emotional drama.
As for the song writing, Adams has little interest in depicting the creative process or using it as an outlet for exploring Iris’s character. Iris and Eleanor seems to work through the generic acoustic ballads entirely in montage. It flits through the process at such a swift pace that the two singers never develop any tangible chemistry. Which makes it even more mind-boggling when the film attempts to crowbar a romantic relationship into their dynamic at the last minute. A rushed move that only exposes how unfocused the film is.
Bittersweet Symphony is clearly aware of the emotional beats it needs to hit, putting the bare minimum of effort into establishing what we need to feel. It is Waterhouse’s performance though that does the heavy lifting. Injecting Iris with a degree of warmth and pathos that allows us to empathise with her plight. The script gives her nothing to work with in terms of a deeper characterisation, but we can at least believe in her familial relationships, her passion for music and her admiration (if not her affection) for Eleanor.
However, it all comes back to a script without the nuance or competence to earn those emotional beats. Never giving us the cold, hard realities of caring for a relative with a terminal illness, or the passion or insight of song writing. When you add to that some truly insufferable supporting characters, displaying what passes for comedy in the film, you are left with a true dud.