Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)
A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.
One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.
Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …
As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.
The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.
While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.