A Day Like Today is an earnest variation on the magic hobo picture. Traditionally, films of this type see characters in desperate situations working through a crisis with the help of a carefree vagrant.
Gerard Walsh’s feature debut is a simple story told well and features some powerful lead performances. Despite a modest budget below €500, director Walsh shoots a handsome and often striking picture, which looks the part of its European art-film contemporaries.
Current trends in European cinema see directors favouring long, uninterrupted takes and static camera placement. Filmmakers can now produce something that looks the part of an art film, provided they keep the camera rolling for a long time.
Walsh is a studied filmmaker and shows an understanding of this wider cinematic landscape; the film’s opening sequence consists of a long take of a beach. We are able to take in the landscape in deep focus and it’s only after a minute or so that we notice a figure stirring in the foreground. The action on the beach is intercut with shots of a woman, clearly distressed, sobbing in her car.
The woman in the car is Alice (McCaffrey Byrne). She’s unhappy in her marriage and is shirking her domestic responsibilities in an attempt to find some solace. The man on the beach is Joe (Butler Lennox). Joe approaches Alice and asks her for change, and she sends him away but regrets it. Alice invites Joe to breakfast to make up for her curtness.
This initial, guarded exchange isn’t much of a meet-cute but the chemistry between the two leads is evident from the off. There is an element of improvisation in their exchanges. The dialogue between Alice and Joe doesn’t sound contrived or stagey; it’s a testament to a strong script, as well as the abilities of McCaffrey Byrne and Butler Lennox.
Joe and Alice wax philosophical about a wide range of topics, from ice cream to matrimony. Through the course of their conversations we begin to get a sense that both their lives are in flux. Joe, despite his happy-go-lucky attitude, is wrestling with some demons from his past, and Alice struggles with the present.
When Joe accepts Alice’s invitation to breakfast, he chastises her about being so trusting, and jokes about the opening of the film Intermission. It’s telling that this film about people cast adrift in their lives invokes this earlier film, in which Collin Farrell’s character is a new Irish man in control of his life even in the midst of chaos.
Joe and Alice live different lives, but they have similar struggles with their identities and places in society. Joe does not believe in marriage, viewing it as a man-made cage, but he is in a cage of his own making, running from his past while negotiating a web of lies.
The film’s action is mostly of the walk-and-talk variety, with an extended montage sequence that showcases the soundtrack and cinematography. It strikes a balance between tourist film and cinéma vérité. There are shots that wouldn’t look out-of-place on a postcard, but we also spend a lot of time down side streets and back alleys.
As we meet the film’s supporting cast, they allow us a view of Joe’s traumatic past. The film’s second act pays particular attention to Joe. Here, Butler Lennox is able to work through some affecting material.
Unfortunately, the strength of the leads proves to be something of a pitfall for the film as a whole. The supporting performances often fall short. This is particularly evident given the tightness of the film’s script; it’s good material delivered flatly. Luckily, the vast majority of the film is focused on Butler Lennox and McCaffrey Byrne, who carry the film through these rougher moments.
The final act of the picture sees Alice’s situation explored in exhaustive and uncomfortable detail. Alice’s husband Iain appears violent and domineering and is tormented by Alice’s transgressions. There’s a marked shift in the tone of the film at this later stage: the lighter tone is done away with in favour of something that approaches a Ken Loach picture.
The film’s closing sequences hit you like a punch to the gut. Violence has touched both characters in a devastating fashion: Joe as victim and then aggressor, and Alice as plain old victim.
It’s a powerful and poignant ending to a film that allows the viewer to care for its characters, not because we are told we have to, but because we enjoy spending time with them.
Walsh, screenwriter Shane Coules and the entire cast and crew of the production have made something very special. A Day Like Today is a touching picture that presents us with an earnest updating of a oft-overlooked movie formula.