Alison Steadman has quietly built a career of iconic female characters, from Beverly in Abigail’s Party, to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, to Pam Shipman in Gavin and Stacey, not to forget her work in The Singing Detective or Life Is Sweet.
To that list we must now add Fern, her character in the late-life romance 23 Walks. On the surface, she’s a woman who walks her dog on a stretch of north London green belt. But in Steadman’s hands, Fern becomes something deeper and more tender as the actress gradually works the layers of the character writer and director Paul Morrison has given her.
Opposite her, it must be said, actor Dave Johns does impressive work as a man called Dave, building on the late-career success his performance in Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake gave this Geordie stand-up comedian.
But it’s Steadman who gives the film its subtle charm and surprises as Fern and Dave build a relationship over a series of the titular walks with their faithful canine companions. It’s a relationship in which the humans sniff around each other like a couple of wary dogs before committing to anything more serious – they’ve both been bruised by life and are wary of falling again. Steadman manages to sketch in Fern’s whole life, from her twinkly days as part of a dance troupe to her failed marriages and unsuitable choices.
It’s a deceptively simple structure and a plain-looking film but it is in the elevation of the everyday that it excels, emotionally and dramatically, as if we, the audience, were suddenly looking in on the little personal drama of a couple we pass by everyday, until we are right under the skin of them, feeling their raw emotions. I smiled and cried with them.