Radi was a circus lion. Radi was a lady hater. Radi had a lady tamer. Radiator. Tom Browne’s debut directorial effort almost completely hinges on a pithy poem’s ability to inspire a chuckle while superficially exploring some of life’s most complex subjects. Yet, Browne’s perfunctory inspection of the many nuances of existence seems an apt choice, as the intentional expositional vagueness imposes upon the audience to inform the narrative according to their own unique life experiences.
A pleading voicemail plays in the darkness as the film opens onto an isolated field. The woman’s crisp and nonchalant voice tells us that a man named Leonard refuses to leave the couch, and that she needs the help of Daniel to get him up and moving. This simple bit of explanation is all that is offered for most of the film. When Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) arrives at the dilapidated and rodent-infested house, Leonard (a grizzled and fantastically stubborn Richard Johnson) has coalesced with the couch, and, indeed, refuses to move. Daniel and Maria (an indescribably poignant Gemma Jones) spend the remainder of the film catering to Leonard and his many quirks (and, quite literally, his shit), some lifelong idiosyncrasies and others inventions of an ever-worsening dementia.
Although we discover that Leonard is Daniel’s father (through a moment of pure frustration), it is not until the final act that Maria is factored into his life. Radiator surely has its moments of love and the unbreakable bonds of family, but neither of those words are ever uttered. Daniel’s cold refusal to address his aged encumbrances by anything other than their first names sheds light on his bitter arrested development and inability to escape a permanent adolescence. Unlike many previous cinematic iterations of a despotic, fraying old timer, Leonard’s eerie mental sharpness becomes heightened by his career as a doctor (through a constant deconstruction of Daniel’s words, one would almost have to assume a specialty in psychological medicine). Leonard’s is no mere obstinacy, his biting derision cuts to the core of Daniel’s insecurities and instantly reduces him to an infantile shadow of a man. Not only using them to berate his son, we see the octogenarian’s powers turned against his wife, and even there, despite the decades of calloused tolerance, his words sting with vitriol and malice.
To Maria, the bad times are like a tyrant of the mind, overshadowing the many points of light that occur in one’s life. In this way, Browne’s film behaves much in the same manner. Unbelievably tender moments — heightened by their contact with instances of astringency — are all but blotted out by the “family’s” constant state of emotional flux. Daniel may hate Leonard for being an overbearing, manipulative father, and Maria for all but ignoring what was going on, but if it were all bad, would he bother coming home at all? Beyond the inextricable familial bond, Daniel must feel something for Leonard and Maria or he simply would not put his life on hold while trying to swoop in and “save the day.”
Radiator never actually “deals” with any of the lofty existentialisms it digs up, firmly positing that they should remain the unknowable, unthinkable aspects of life. Jones and Johnson give excruciatingly real performances as the elderly couple, as every interaction contains an emotional punch, and as with many long-time partners, their wordless glances pack more power than words ever could. Radiator never resolves and never really aims to; it is a brief yet timeless moment captured on film.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.