Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom, 2021. Ascendant Films, Burton Fox Films, White Hot Productions, Three Little Birds Pictures, Alpine Films, Bromantics, Insight Media Fund, Matriarch Productions, Urban Way Productions. Screenplay by Philip Barantini, James Cummings. Cinematography by Matthew Lewis. Produced by Hester Ruoff, Bart Ruspoli. Music by Aaron May, David Ridley. Production Design by Aimee Meek. Costume Design by Karen Smyth. Film Editing by Alex Fountain.
Running a fine dining establishment is akin to leading soldiers into battle, and Philip Barantini’s expansion of his 2019 short film captures every stage of the conflict in pulse-pounding detail. The chef of an elegant London restaurant (Stephen Graham) shows up late for meal prep before the place opens, immediately given the business by a snooty health inspector who informs him that his establishment has been downgraded from a level five to a three because of paperwork issues and a few code violations involving sinks and temperatures. After taking his frustration about this out on his staff, Graham and company immediately get to work, and almost as soon as the place opens, no end of crises arise that need to be addressed, on this particular night during the Christmas holidays at an even more intense level than normal.
There’s a pastry chef whose assistant is having a self-harm crisis, a dishwasher who is furious that her co-worker is two hours late for his shift, a French staff member who can’t understand Graham’s accent (and for those of us not living on the British Isles, the feeling is often mutual) and another worker who can’t make his way through a pile of oysters. Sous chef Carly (Vinette Robinson) keeps it together despite always being on the brink of crisis, keeping the kitchen running while also compensating for a boss whose crumbling home life is affecting his focus on his job, but she eventually loses it on the hostess (Alice Feetham) who is having to keep things going on the floor with her wait staff but can’t coordinate their efforts with the kitchen’s needs.
The servers have their own situations to deal with, including overly demanding self-pronounced VIP guests who want food not on the menu, a rude and racist new-money dad who thinks ordering a 200-pound bottle of wine gives him the right to be abusive, the arrival of a famous television chef (Jason Flemyng) and a restaurant reviewer (Izuka Hoyle) who require actual VIP treatment for the sake of the establishment, and a loud group of girlfriends who make the fabulous gay waiter perform like a dancing monkey for their amusement.
Customer allergies, personal woes on cellphones, a step outside to the back to meet a friend for a pickup and so much more are covered by a camera that glides back and forth from front to back in what feels like a spontaneous manner but is actually anything but. Barantini films the entire movie in a single shot, and unlike other films that have given the appearance of having done so through digital visual effects, this movie was actually done in one solitary shot, its initial schedule of eight performances shot over four nights cut in half by the Covid-19 pandemic (reportedly the third of four takes is used in the final product). The dexterity with which the actors keep the pace going is mind-blowing, the camera never misses a single important fascinating detail, and despite the fact that some of the crises feel turned up to eleven simply for the sake of entertainment, they never feel overly contrived (though the final moments do perhaps threaten to push things a bit too far; in my imagination, the end of an explosive night surviving the noble profession of serving food is for the entire experience to be swallowed up into the banality of nothingness, not the rather exaggerated crisis we have here).
Lest you think the title suggests that things are scaling up towards a particular explosive moment, be warned, this movie gets your blood to boiling from its first moments and never simmers down, though a few scenes push things to an even greater extreme; the best of them, Robinson’s cathartic monologue to Feetham’s impatient hostess, helps relieve a great deal of the tension that has been built, but there are still timebombs ahead waiting to explode. The cast is uniformly first-rate, but Robinson is a first among equals and gives one of the finest performances in any British film of this particular year.