Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption! This month we go on the search for the Third Star!
Have you heard of this actor named Benedict Cumberbatch? He’s played some minor roles in recent blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit, and Doctor Strange. Had a little something to do with Oscar-winners The Imitation Game and 12 Years a Slave. Oh, and he’s amassed somewhat of a fanbase for his role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock.
I jest, of course. But before Mr. Cumberbatch went off to breathe fire and learn sorcery and deduce the existence of the Niagara from a single drop of water, he embraced mortality as a terminally ill cancer patient in a little known British drama called Third Star (2010). Directed by Hattie Dalton in her only feature film to date, Third Star follows James (Cumberbatch) and his three friends – Davy (Tom Burke), Bill (Adam Robertson), and Miles (JJ Feild) – on a final road trip to James’s favorite place on Earth: the remote Barafundle Bay in Wales.
Unlike the majority of the films in this column, Third Star is an unflashy indie that hasn’t received much attention of any kind, so I’d like to prod it out into the spotlight. (I’ve tried to stay away from revealing too many spoilers, because I really do want people seek it out.) Because, I must say, this movie devastated me when I first saw it – and yes, I initially discovered it because I was in the process of absorbing everything in Benedict Cumberbatch’s oeuvre, but I became totally engrossed for other reasons as well: namely, the film’s evocation of soul-searching, penetrating emotion.
Third Star offers a masterclass in tone. The subject matter is heavy –James’s cancer hangs over the entire trip like a thundering storm cloud – but the interspersal of lighter, comedic moments gives us permission to laugh despite the tragedy. When the four friends head out onto the open road shortly after James’s 29th birthday in their overstuffed vehicle, rickshaw-style wheelchair strapped to the roof, the atmosphere is jubilant. We are treated to home video-style shots of the initial leg of their adventure, an homage to the many road trip dramas of the past (one character straight out name-drops Deliverance). A brawl breaks out at a festive bar in the countryside, and James gleefully wheels into the fracas, using his cart like a battering ram. Throughout the film, the friends sing and dance by the fire, setting off fireworks as a special treat for James, each crackle and pop illuminating the expression of joy on their faces.
Experiencing these lighthearted moments alongside the weightier manifestations of James’s illness allows us to feel the ultimate tragedy more profoundly as a result: a shot of the gorgeous sunset bathing the four friends in gold and red is duplicated towards the end, when they are all at their lowest points, calling back to the very same shot as the adventure is just beginning. Right after the fireworks display, there is a image of James crying with nobody watching, and throughout the film James (realistically) suffers through bouts of crippling nausea and pain. And when James and his friends drive away at the beginning, his family looks at him like it’s the last time they’ll ever see him. As James remarks in a voiceover: “The sickness may be mine, but the tragedy is theirs.”
There are even instances in Third Star where these two tones are blended within a single scene: James brings up a somber discussion of the afterlife, scandalizing his friends, but the conversation soon devolves into laughs: “Just picture me tap dancing in the firmament and I’ll be happy,” James says. In a headlining cameo by Hugh Bonneville, a bare chested beachcomber dressed absurdly in jean shorts regales the crew with a tale of long lost Star Wars merchandise, but then reveals to Davy that his own best friend recently passed away from cancer. In Third Star, art truly does imitate life, expressing an intermingling of extreme highs and extreme lows.
As with many ensemble cast films, the characters in Third Star occupy particular categories: Miles dresses in posh sweaters and allows his angsty past to weigh down the chip on his shoulder, wanting nothing more than to ignore James’s illness, while Davy, in contrast, defines himself by the illness, “desperate to be needed.” The everyman underachiever, Bill is trapped with a girlfriend he doesn’t love, toiling away at a job that bears little resemblance to the dream career of his youth. And James, angry at his friends for wasting away their lives, jealous of their ability to waste away their lives, states plainly that he really doesn’t want to die. “I want… more time,” he croaks. “I want more time.”
This could easily come across as melodramatic, but Benedict Cumberbatch sells every beat of James’s character. His red-rimmed eyes betray a constant, inner sadness, but his delight and sincerity is just as palpable. He exudes a lust for life that is irrevocably tainted by his prognosis – and the weight of that mortality is evident from the first scene in the film to the very last. Introducing the purpose of the road trip to the audience, James explains: “I needed to escape.” Escape he does, but I was inexorably drawn in. And his final “morphine toast,” which I’ll allow you to discover on your own, will forever be emblazoned in my heart.