Let’s get the “icky” part out of the way up front.
“Scarborough” is a drama about two teachers showing up at the same British coastal resort town, off-season from the looks of it, for a weekend with their student-lovers.
They know what they’re doing is wrong, “illegal.” None of this French/Continental indulgence on a sliding Polanski perversion scale. This is Britain and each teacher is paranoid about prison.
As they should be.
Barnaby Southcombe’s film, based on Fiona Evans’ play, makes its intentions clear. One teacher is male, another is female. This is going to be an exploration of how we look at this sort of imbalanced, improper coupling between the allegedly mature and “ought to know better” and impulsive, hormonal teens who don’t know better.
Is it more wrong for a woman to seduce or be seduced by a teen boy than for a man to seduce or be seduced by a teen girl? And how have those attitudes evolved over time?
“Scarborough” asks us to get past the nudity, the sexual heat and blatant titillation and consider the dynamics and consequences of these situations. Go beyond the #MeToo passions of the day, the amorality, and consider the psychological damage to the kids and the broken souls who know right from wrong, but insist on carrying on such affairs anyway.
Liz (Jodhi May of “Last of the Mohicans”) looks guilty the moment she furtively sidles up to the front desk of the Hotel Metropole.
She’s over 40, and her hair and dress suggest “lonely” and “plain.” Not that the desk clerk isn’t picking up on something else. He (Daniel York) wonders about her solo reservation, mentions that “extra guests do incur a surcharge,” and winks at the fact that she’s booked the bridal suite.
The hunky young jock (Jordan Bolger of “Peaky Blinders”) who slips into the elevator with her is awfully cocky. And when the doors slide shut, “eager” enters into the description.
Their silent arrival in the room has a brisk role-playing to act out, standoffish and nervous vs. dress-lifting impatience. Whatever 16 year-old boy Daz has on his mind, she’s acting out some sort of fantasy.
“The act” is about as sexy as a road accident, and just as quick.
Aidan (Edward Hogg of “Anonymous,” the Shakespeare “expose”) is just as nervous at that self-same front desk. Only he gets more than a wink from Mr. Concierge. It’s practically a leer of approval, once the clerk has spied the teen sneaking upstairs with him.
Beth (Jessica Barden of “Far from the Madding Crowd” and TV’s “Penny Dreadful”) is a hyperactive pixie, tarted up for the occasion, reckless in her public displays of affection.
“That’s not why I brought you here.”
One of the tricks to Evans’ play is how dialogue and gestures are repeated with each couple. “We need to talk” and gifts (from the kids to their older lovers) of photos which the adults warn “You know you can’t SHOW anyone.”
“I’m not STUPID,” the kids protest. Naive in that “I didn’t think about that” way, both of them.
This “We need to talk” weekend has snatches of dialogue underscoring visits to the picturesque empty beach and boardwalk, a Punch & Judy Show or an arcade, underlining the age and maturity difference with lighter moments that don’t hide the weight of what’s going on and what’s to come.
Beth bounces on the bed, literally. Daz makes mock loud sex noises that anybody near the room could hear. She wants to see the puppets, he wants change to play the arcade games.
The kids trivialize what they’re doing, feigning how they just saw “the Headmaster,” sending their partner in crime into a panic. The adults are desperate, clawing for an escape.
There are complications. One is cheating on a would-be fiance, the other on a husband.
“Five minutes of something wonderful is better than a lifetime of nothing special.”
I know nothing of the playwright Evans or her agenda, which gives “Scarborough” the necessary remove from the likes of Woody Allen and Luc Besson, whose predilections are well-publicized and whose movies often “normalize” such “consensual” couples.
That lets us mull over what’s going on, what brought them all here, even if we can guess the melodramatic turns that will point the stories towards their resolutions.
May brings a brittle fragility to Liz and lets us see the youth that one relives when involved with somebody much younger. She has a downtrodden quality, but gives us flashes of giddy when she’s with Daz and not worried sick about…everything.
Hogg’s Aiden is less shaded. We regard such affairs as vampire-like for a reason — the older person sucking the youth out of the younger. Is this nerdy/artist 30ish teacher getting the “hot girl” he never had a shot with in high school? What else could be in play?
The kids? They’re here for the adventure, the play-acting at being an adult with none of the responsibilities and nothing but an open future in front of them. They have no idea, either of them. Bolger gets across Daz’s callowness and inability to see past the next meal or “shag,” and Barden dazzles with a Lolita-ish native cunning. Beth may be dizzy, may call on her high school brain to attempt manipulations no adult would fall for. But she knows what she wants.
The theatrical feel of it all excuses the viewer from the need to immerse oneself in the situation, to imagine him or herself in one of the roles. That allows us to wrestle with the psychological issues like a shrink, hearing about these affairs in the course of a day seeing patients.
It’s as if we need inoculation against the disease portrayed here, one that we and the world turned a blind eye too just a blink-of-an-eye ago. Thinking about that too much lets “Scarborough” get under your skin, and we mustn’t have that, must we?
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes and sexual situations involving minors
Cast: Jessica Barden, Jordan Bolger, Edward Hogg, Jodhi May and Daniel York
Credits: Written and directed by Barnaby Southcombe, based on a play by Fiona Evans. A Level 33 release.
Running time: 1:27