Movie Review: A late-life romance that blossoms over dogs, and “23 Walks”

“Baggage” some call it. “Complications” is what it is. The longer you live, the more experiences you’ve had, bad and good, and the more your pile of memories, traumas, triumphs and tragedies dictates how you respond to the world and to the people you encounter in it.

Here’s a delicate British melodrama that resides on the melancholy side of the tracks. Two seniors, “OAPs” (old age pensioners) meet, warily circle each other and eventually reveal their baggage during “23 Walks” with their dogs.

Dave (Dave Johns of “I, Daniel Blake” and “Fisherman’s Friends”) is the outgoing one, chatting with a friend he sees on his daily walks, doting on his aged Alsatian Tilly.

Calling Fern — played by Alison Steadman of Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet,” Mrs. Bennett of the classic TV “Pride & Prejudice” — “wary” is an understatement. Her first greeting, in a narrow path hemmed in by fences, is “Put your DOG on a LEAD!”

Making peace is going to be a chore with the lady walking the yappie Yorkie Henry.

“Can I give him a treat?”

“I don’t THINK so.”

Each chance encounter in the park is a tad on the fraught side.

“Ok if we walk with you?”

“It’s a free country!”

This Paul Morrison (“Little Ashes”) film takes its time letting us know character’s names, takes its time setting up the budding relationship “23 Walks” is about and takes its time piling on complications, the “secrets” and “baggage” these two bring, along with their dogs on these “chance” encounters.

For starters, the bump-intos aren’t chance at all. Dave is interested, patient and persistent. Fern is so testy and tetchy, he has to be.

Over the course of those 23 walks, they will grow closer and tear apart, reach a rapprochement and abruptly shut-down once again. Hard won experience and hard-moments of hurt come back to the surface for each of them.

Both Steadman, who not only worked with but was married to the great chronicler of British working class realism Mike Leigh, and Johns, a comic actor on TV who had a later-life breakthrough in film working with Ken Loach on “I, Daniel Blake,” are throwbacks to the “kitchen sink realism” of British theater, which endures in British film thanks to filmmakers they’ve worked with.

The “issues” with this possible relationship range from a messy divorce and eviction to adult children and an aged dog. And those are just for starters. At times it seems Morrison is tossing everything but the kitchen sink at these two.

These get to be a bit much for us, and for Fern, the divorced one who does most of the breaking up.

“It’s all got too complicated.”

But the grace notes carry these “23 Walks,” which range from parks to the countryside surrounding London and include impromptu Spanish lessons — he learned it from a cleaning lady, she needs to understand it for a daughter’s wedding in the Canary Islands — and a sing-along to fondly-remembered comic ditty about wallowing in the mud from their youth.

And there’s a grand rapport between our stars, something warmer than mere “chemistry” — a shared history, despite the fact that the characters have only just met. The retired nurse and former showgirl’s banter has an easy familiarity.

“Sing me a song.”

“Oh Dave, you don’t know what you’re asking!”

“Pretend you’re in the bath!”

“I was never a STRIPPER!”

The sadness that courses through this uneasy and deliberate courtship won’t be to every taste. But for the brave, for those experienced enough to know about “baggage” and that no one gets out of here alive, this tale of finding a surprise connection in the twilight years, overcoming shrinking horizons and the burden of grief, disappointment and melancholy will resonate.

Rating: unrated, sex, profanity

Cast: Alison Steadman, Dave Johns

Credits: Scripted and directed by Paul Morrison. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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