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► Boiling Point is in UK cinemas from December 5.
Expanding on the BIFA-nominated short film of the same name that he made in 2019, Philip Barantini’s exhilarating Boiling Point takes us behind the scenes at a busy east London restaurant in the run-up to Christmas, on a night when seemingly everything is going wrong for head chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham). When the film opens on Andy he is already stressed and running late, and when he arrives at Jones & Sons in Dalston, the news that a visiting hygiene inspector has downgraded his restaurant from a five-star rating to a three (largely as a result of Andy’s failure to maintain proper paperwork) sets the tone for the evening. Tensions in the kitchen continue to rise when it is revealed that Andy has also forgotten to make a substantial meat order, and by the time celebrity chef and former colleague Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng) has turned up for dinner with a notorious food critic (Lourdes Faberes) on his arm, we can see what the film’s title is getting at.
We experience every excruciating minute of this night from hell alongside Andy and his staff because, as in his short (which was essentially made a dry-run/proof of concept for the feature), Barantini has chosen to film Boiling Point in a single continuous shot, and his cast and crew have met the challenge of sustaining a ninety-minute take with aplomb. With nimble work from cinematographer Matthew Lewis, the film places us right in the middle of a chaotic environment but always maintains a sense of clarity. Unlike other recent one-take movies such as Victoria (2015) or Utøya: July 22 (2018), Boiling Point is restricted primarily to a single indoor location, and Barantini quickly establishes the geography of the restaurant within the opening minutes to ensure we always know where we are going when the camera leaves one character to follow another. The film’s fluidity is a marvel of intelligent choreography and blocking.
The relay-style approach of having the camera pick up the trail of a different character every few minutes also allows Barantini and his co-writer James Cummings to expand their point of view and introduce a wider variety of themes into the drama. As you’d expect in a modern London establishment, the staff in Jones & Sons is international and multicultural, and while it’s never made explicit, there is clearly a racial element to some of the microaggressions depicted in the film. You can see it in the different tone that the hygiene inspector (a wonderfully supercilious Thomas Coombes) takes when speaking to white and non-white staff members, or the way one particularly obnoxious customer addresses young black waitress Andrea (Lauryn Ajufo) after she has replaced Robyn (Áine Rose Daly), the white waitress he was on jovial terms with.
The script also fleetingly touches on many of the supporting characters’ personal issues, creating the sense that they all have a life outside of this kitchen. There’s a beautifully handled moment when one of the restaurant’s younger staff members is revealed to be self-harming. The colleague he shares this fact with doesn’t push the issue any further – they simply don’t have time to get into it on a night like this – but the incident is more moving for being underplayed.
Barantini and Cummings don’t always manage to write with such finesse. The incident-packed second half of the film can feel strained (the exact details of a supposedly tense financial arrangement between Andy and Alastair remain fuzzy). The filmmaking is agile enough to swiftly move past the occasional jarring juncture, however, and the actors play everything with absolute authenticity. Barantini was an actor for many years before turning to directing, and he gets exceptional work from this cast, with Stephen Graham again proving that he is one of the most honest and empathetic actors working today.
The foul-mouthed and red-faced chef barking at his staff is a cliché we are all too familiar with, and Andy explodes with anger on multiple occasions during the film, often having to apologise to the target of his rage shortly afterwards, but Graham ensures these rapid emotional gearchanges always feel organic and rooted in his own internal pain and frustration. The outstanding Vinette Robinson matches Graham as the level-headed sous-chef whose loyalty to Andy has been stretched to the limit, and Alice Feetham impresses as the restaurant manager who is out of her depth, but it doesn’t seem entirely fair to single out individuals from such a remarkable ensemble piece. Boiling Point is a virtuoso filmmaking feat, and one that could only have been achieved through an extraordinary team effort on both sides of the camera.
30 great films playing at BFI London Film Festival 2021
Unsure where to start with this year’s LFF? All of the films in this selection come with the seal of approval of Sight and Sound critics.