When directors decide to journey down the one-take path (either genuinely or edited to appear that way), it’s usually in service of making the theatrical even more theatrical (“Birdman”), the horrifying more unrelenting (“1917”), or the thrills even more thrilling (“Victoria”). The low-key genius of director Philip Barantini’s decision to employ the technique for “Boiling Point” is that it’s utilized to amplify one of the most treacherous jobs of all — getting an expensive meal on a plate. Bracingly real in a way that makes Gordon Ramsay’s reality confections look like cartoons and renders “Top Chef” challenges undemanding, “Boiling Point” is a temperature-raising restaurant drama whose heightening series of personal and professional stakes will immediately plunge you into a flop sweat.
When we pick up with chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham), already late for the dinner service prep at his upscale rustic resto Jones & Son, he’s on the phone, desperately trying to calm tensions at home. Little does he know, as he hangs up and steps into the restaurant, he’s about to face an evening of ever-escalating problems that are so numerous it might even give Howard Ratner from “Uncut Gems” pause. With the doors set to open and things already behind, Andy must patiently wait through an enervating, thorough, and condescending surprise health inspection by the ironically named Mr. Lovejoy (Thomas Coombes). Once that’s over, Andy’s informed by his team that, since he forgot to place an order with their suppliers, they’re running low on key ingredients and have had to MacGyver a menu into place. As service begins, Andy is stunned to find out that Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng) — a celebrity chef and old acquaintance — will be dining along with food critic Sara Southworth (Lourdes Faberes). Among the packed reservation list, there’s also a table of Instagram influencers with fussy demands, and a young couple with a surprise proposal planned and a food allergy to manage. Meanwhile, Andy’s emotional and organizational rock in the kitchen, keeping the team unified and walls intact, is his Head Chef Carly (Vinette Robinson), but she’s fielding a better offer and needs an answer by end of shift if she’ll get the increase in wages she wants that’ll keep her under his roof. If that’s not enough, “Boiling Point” is also a Christmas movie.
Expanding upon their impressive short film (which also starred Graham), Barantini and co-writer James Cummings don’t just turn up the heat on Andy but use Jones & Son as a microcosmic case study of the worst-case scenario of what both the front of house and kitchen staff might face if a service goes totally sideways. (“Boiling Point” could be the blueprint for an emergency drill in any hospitality school). If even just slightly mishandled, the numerous expanding plot threads might feel like a feature-length version of Bob Terwilliger stepping on rakes. However, Barantini and Cummings’ screenplay never feels too overburdened, and the pair wisely decide that most of the stories unfolding under the roof of Jones & Son won’t be neatly resolved or resolved at all — sometimes a really bad night is just that. A revelation by the youngest member of the team to the Pastry Chef provides one of the film’s most potent moments and shines as an example of how the tightly knit script, at its best, can find depths of emotion even as it races from the kitchen to bar to dining area and back. But it’s not a surprise that with so many competing interests, a couple of strands don’t get their due. Most disappointingly, young black waitress Andrea’s (Lauryn Ajufo) evening dealing with a racist customer, after taking over the table from the blonde and bubbly Robyn (Aine Rose Daly), is left to hang and doesn’t get fully realized in the way it deserves. But the film moves so briskly and keeps Andy’s mounting pressures in focus that anything that’s ultimately extraneous never feels like it’s detracting from the chef’s unraveling happening before our eyes.
Always the bridesmaid and rarely the bride, it’s an unreserved joy to have Stephen Graham command attention in a leading role. Having led Barantini’s and Cummings’ short, Graham’s enthusiasm for the part is evident, playing Andy as bipolar, raging one moment, contrite the next, all while barely keeping his demons from surfacing on his carefully constructed public-facing exterior. The actor is a small tornado, compact and unpredictable and utterly hard to take your eyes off of. Around him, the ensemble of mostly up-and-comers more than meet the task of staying toe-to-toe with Graham’s tempo, none more so than Vinette Robinson, who has the challenge of playing Andy’s cooler, level-headed better half in the kitchen. Robinson delivers the perfect counterbalance to Andy’s heat, delivering the authority and empathy to the team that he can’t manage, all while coming to the realization that her days of shouldering his load need to come to an end.
To pull together these layers of flavor, “Boiling Point” is presented in a (seemingly) real-time, single-take by cinematographer Matthew Lewis, but the filmmakers aren’t interested in using the format to try and dazzle audiences with how-did-they-do-that sequences or cleverly masked edits. Rather the decision stems from aiming to provide an unbroken, immersive, and at times voyeuristic experience that always stays on the right side of tipping over into reality show style excess. It works, and the immediacy and intensity are arresting to the extent that one forgets you’re watching an exceedingly well-rehearsed production. Barantini and Lewis’ fluid work never leave you wrong-footed, subtly mapping out the space from the front door to the kitchen alley exit, so even as you might leave Andy in the kitchen and pick up with him again at a customer’s table, you’re always acutely aware of the proximity of activity around him. Most of all, the unblinking camerawork serves to make Andy’s fatalist journey even more feverish, the anxiety ratcheting up with each dish that leaves the kitchen, as the vice turns ever more tightly around the chef who is desperately trying his world from falling apart. It’s enough to even fray the nerves of the Safdies.
Unintentionally, “Boiling Point” arrives at a time when the pandemic has caused a profound and necessary shift in the industry as workers are abandoning the kind of low-pay, high-stress jobs depicted in the film. Even if made a bit more colorful for dramatic purposes in the film, the treatment workers receive from customers and employers alike isn’t worth the crumb-sized paychecks they get in return. But as the walls close in on Andy, and his personal and professional woes can no longer remain compartmentalized, it would seem that the foodservice lifestyle isn’t sustainable even for those at the top. [B+]
“Boiling Point” arrives in select theaters on November 19 before hitting VOD on November 23.