Boiling Point is a single-take drama set during a busy service at a London restaurant and it has to be the most stressful film of the year. I realise it’s early days, but if a more stressful film comes along I would be most surprised. If this film were a recipe, the first instruction would read: ‘Nerves, shred.’ Followed by: ‘Put in pressure cooker and whack the temperature up.’ It is brilliantly executed but also one of those films you can find compelling and engrossing while praying for it to be over.
It stars Stephen Graham, that little powerhouse of a fella, who now serves as a kitemark, surely. (Has he ever been in anything bad? Did you see him in Time?) And it is written and directed by Philip Barantini, otherwise an actor (Band of Brothers, Chernobyl, Humans) who has spent his ‘resting’ periods working in kitchens. The single, 92-minute, continuous take was filmed in an actual restaurant (Jones & Sons, Dalston; modern British) with no cheating. No secret cuts, no secret edits, no Birdman funny business. (I don’t have space for the logistics but do look all that up. It was fiendishly difficult.) Wherever anyone goes, we are right there. This offers an anxious, intimate, improvised feel. Plus it’s real cooking in real time. (The duck looked good. No turbot today. You’ll learn why.)
Graham plays Andy, the restaurant’s head chef and part-owner and as we follow him on his way into the restaurant for that evening’s service we already understand, by what he’s saying into his phone, that he has domestic problems and a young kid he doesn’t see enough of. There is such jittery tension from the first moments that we also understand there is something broken about Andy and we are on it, asking ourselves: can he hold it together? Or will he implode? That water bottle he is always clutching. Is it water? This is, in other words, narratively propulsive from the off.
The pressure builds. His staff are loyal. They obviously respect and like him. Or did. Lately, his behaviour has become so erratic that tempers are starting to fray. The sous-chef, Carly (a remarkably naturalistic, pent-up performance from Vinette Robinson), has always covered for him, but can that continue? Elsewhere we have Jake (Daniel Larkai), the lazy kitchen porter, and Emily (Hannah Walters), the kindly, maternal pastry chef, and Beth (Alice Feetham), who is front of house and who they all hate. No one says as much. But you can tell. Given everything happens at such a lick, it’s amazing how full and complex the characters are. Beth, I’ll be your friend! There’s a brief moment between Emily and her new young assistant that is so affecting you may well cry.
The restaurant fills up while Andy, who is desperately trying to not face up to himself, or the liability he’s become, attempts to front it all out. The customers do not help. There’s a racist table, a trio of obnoxious influencers who insist on going off-menu, a woman with a severe nut allergy (hello, Chekhov’s gun) and a celebrity TV chef (Jason Flemyng) who arrives with a food critic in tow and has form with Andy. He insists on a little dish of za’atar to sprinkle over his risotto — ‘it’s 98 per cent there’ — which isn’t so much passive aggression as a direct stab to Andy’s heart.
The pace does not let up. It’s relentless, just like an actual restaurant service, says Barantini. But something has to give. You just don’t know what. It’s as tense as a thriller and while the ending may, perhaps, be something of a cop-out, it is a terrific ride driven by Graham’s honest, urgent, vulnerable performance. True, you will be praying for it to be over. But we’re used to that. (See: Omicron. Nearly forgot: Happy new year!)