'Starter for 10': Well Played

Alice Eve, James McAvoy, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch and Elaine Tan in
Alice Eve, James McAvoy, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch and Elaine Tan in "Starter for 10," a charming look at the game of life in 1980s Britain. (By Giles Keyte -- Picturehouse)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

On the face of it, "Starter for 10" might seem reductive. You know: Working-class kid makes it into college, pursues his dream while he pinballs romantically between the smart, sensitive girl and the snooty heartbreaker. But what could have been merely a college student's romantic coming-of-age story -- dressed up in 1980s gear, as kids bob and weave to Tears for Fears -- uses British class politics of the time as a launching point for sharply observed comedy.

The film succeeds in showing how profoundly class politics -- the socioeconomic divide between Maggie Thatcher's free-market constituents and England's disenfranchised underclass -- permeated British society at the time.

The shy working-class lad at the center is Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), who has a peculiar dream: to appear on the general-knowledge, college-team quiz show "University Challenge." (The film's title is the TV show's jargon for a contestant's opening question.) The program, hosted by the frizzy-haired nerd Bamber Gascoigne (a real-life emcee, as famous in England as Alex Trebek is here, played in the film by Mark Gatiss), amounts to a social divining rod. Its winning teams hail from the Oxfords and Cambridges rather than Brian's Bristol University. And Brian's very appearance on the program -- in the eyes of his family and townspeople -- amounts to a sort of class pretentiousness. They worry he'll turn into a snob.

That underlying divide makes for delicious comedy when Brian's hometown friend Spencer (Dominic Cooper) visits his mate at Bristol, only to become embroiled in a fight with Brian's priggish TV team leader, Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch). After an invective-laced shouting match -- an amusing face-off between upper-class hauteur and streetwise slang -- Spencer takes a swing at Patrick. Appalled, Brian chides his friend for resorting to violence.

"I didn't resort to it," Spencer says indignantly. "Violence was my first choice."

Meanwhile, Brian deals with a romantic dilemma -- whether to pursue Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve), the smoldering blonde on his TV team, or Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), a smart quipster forever waving placards for the social cause of the day.

First-time director Tom Vaughan and screenwriter David Nicholls present class politics in a way that never gets bogged down in rhetoric. And Nicholls (adapting his semi-autobiographical book "A Question of Attraction") defines but never confines his characters. Class may be a crucial part of their identity but it never stops them surprising and amusing us. Brian's widowed, seemingly demure mother Julie (a subtly hilarious Catherine Tate) impulsively takes up with the driver of a Mr. Whippy ice cream van, for instance. Alice, the blonde who breathlessly calls Brian a "general knowledge god," proves to be no bimbo. And even Patrick -- cartoonishly amusing for his starchy arrogance -- has his outbreaks of humanity.

It's not just writing, however, that makes these characters so refreshing, it's the performers, who represent an emergence of British talent we can expect to enjoy over the coming years. Hall, who played Christian Bale's wife in "The Prestige," puts endearing weight in every line, especially when she makes Brian promise to never, ever show her his poetry. Dominic Cooper, one of the students in "The History Boys," enriches Spencer's loutish ways with sensitivity. And Cumberbatch, the young British Prime Minister William Pitt in "Amazing Grace," never lets himself get completely caught up in caricature.

McAvoy, so memorable as Idi Amin's doctor-turned-adviser in "The Last King of Scotland," may be the most likable British newcomer since Ewan McGregor; his glistening eyes can seduce audiences with their ability to show conflicting emotions. He's a master of wordless reaction when-- after his first, nervous puff of a marijuana cigarette -- he has to be reminded to exhale, or as he listens with amusing dismay as Alice reels off an endless list of former lovers. ("Funny how so many of them ended up suicidal or in prison," he sums up politely.) He not only brings an endearing center to the movie, he makes it okay -- well, almost -- to dance like a dork.

Starter for 10 (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual situations, drug use and violence.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company