THIRD STAR: A Beautiful Ode To Hope & Despair
What makes Third Star special is its no-holds-barred approach to terminal illness, coupled with its magnificent cast and script.
After the initial success of BBC’s Sherlock in 2010, everyone, including a lot of women, wanted a piece of Benedict Cumberbatch and everything he had to offer. As his success grew so did the desire for his past work. Strangely, though, his role in Hattie Dalton’s Third Star (released in 2011) seemed to pass everyone by, and I’ve always found this very unsatisfying.
Finding that so few people have seen this film, fueled by the fact that Dalton has not made a feature film since, I feel it’s time to return to Third Star, and talk it up for the brilliant piece of work that it is.
The Best of Foundations
Third Star is a simple story, centered around James (Cumberbatch), a man in his late twenties who is dying of cancer. He tries to put on a brave face for his family, but ultimately he can’t stand the stasis he finds himself in—one where he is not quite living. Feeling his imminent end, his oldest and dearest friends take him on a hike to Barafundle Bay in West Wales. As they travel, tensions arise, emotions come out and James antagonizes his friends into living the life he won’t have.
What well and truly makes Third Star is everything. A superb script married with excellent direction and a talented bunch of actors means that nothing here is second rate. The only bad part about it is that this talented bunch have not worked on such a scale since. Dalton has not directed another film and, for Welsh producer Vaughan Sivell, this was his one and only foray into scriptwriting, which is a great shame.
Sivell’s script feels real. At first I found it a tad sentimental or nostalgic, but I soon changed my mind. Not long after watching Third Star for the first time, I watched a documentary about a man similar to James and realized how well Sivell had constructed his character. Sivell has almost perfectly transcribed the actual pain of suffering through cancer while also managing to convey the warmth and attitude of those that surround those that endure the disease. Added to this are the small vignettes and moments of dark comedy that punctuate a very smooth narrative. Altogether, the film feels real, yet otherworldly. Sentimental, but harsh.
Dalton’s direction is equally brilliant. James’s story is told warmly and thoughtfully, with great visual pondering on the landscape and the beauty of the world around him. However, it is also harsh and cold, and Dalton has no qualms about combining sentimental moments with all out rage and anguish. Moments of comedy are strangled by bloodcurdling events as James wails with pain. It’s not always easy to watch, but these moments are important to the story. For her first film, Dalton has done a tremendous job here, keenly balancing comedy and tragedy, joy and anguish. But, of course, the film would not be as successful as it is without its band of actors.
It goes without saying that Benedict Cumberbatch is a tremendous actor. However, I believe Third Star to be one of his greatest roles, because he has been given so much depth and emotion in which to dig his acting teeth. In Wreckers, I felt he stood on the sidelines; in Atonement, he was something of a two-dimensional villain; in August: Osage County, he had a great role but not much time on screen. In fact, as much as I love to watch him, most of Cumberbatch’s roles are two-dimensional cutout characters, or never have much time on screen.
James, however, is different. He is full of thought and life, and I can’t imagine anyone playing him better than Cumberbatch. But it goes without saying that if it wasn’t for the supporting cast, this film would be brilliant, but not quite the gem that it is. Davy (Tom Burke), Miles (JJ Feild) and Bill (Adam Robertson) are James’ best friends and are the kind of people who will look past his disease. However, as James antagonizes their concern for him, their facades break down.
Davy has been taking care of James since he lost his job; he knows every piece of medication and every piece of care James might need. But James is concerned he’s become his friend’s job, and in an act of tough love pushes at him, and so Davy pushes back. As their relationship erupts, James begins his attack on Bill, and eventually Miles is pulled closer into James’ anguish, which until now he has avoided.
The chemistry of Cumberbatch, Burke, Feild and Robertson is outstanding. Their characters feel worn-in and understood, and together they create the most convincing group of old friends. They laugh together, they make fun of each other, they’ll tear each other up, and they’ll let each other down. Everything, from their dialogue to their body language, is spot on, and while their time together is ultimately sad, you can’t help but wish you had a friendship like theirs.
Third Star: Conclusion
Third Star is a brilliant, heart-warming film. It is written, directed and filmed beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that you will ponder whether any story of cancer could be acted out like this. I suppose no one can be sure for certain. But from what I’ve seen, and what I’ve been told, it’s not terribly far from the truth. Which is what ultimately makes the film so heartbreaking.
Third Star is a film about wanting to be alive, about wanting to be given choices, about wanting the best for the ones you love. As such, it is also a film about heartbreak and despair. It is also a perfectly made film with incredible acting, a perfect script and some brilliant direction. I only hope that as Cumberbatch et al. have gone on to bigger and better things, so too will Sivell and Dalton.
Have you seen Third Star? What did you think of it?
Third Star was released in 2010. It can be found on DVD in the UK and is available on Amazon Video in the US.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.