Harold’s Going Stiff (Keith Wright, 2011)
The surprising winner of the five films I watched this work-from-home Tuesday: Harold’s Going Stiff, which I expected to be another brainless zombedy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but ended up being a touching mockumentary combined with a savage satire of Britain’s healthcare system. Don’t get me wrong, there are funny bits, especially revolving around the characters who, had Wright had the budget for A-list actors, would have been Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but there’s a lot more under the hood here.
Plot: there’s a new disease going round that turns people into zombies. Not that anyone in Health Services is going to use the word “zombie”. But pensioner Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe in his first feature appearance) has it, and he’s starting to suffer the consequences (the early stages of the disease seem quite a bit like dementia—this may be a comedy, but it’s an uncomfortable one indeed). Harold goes through a slew of nurse before being assigned Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer in her first, but hopefully not her last, screen appearance), a lonely nurse who has the patience and humanity to put up with Harold’s social awkwardness and forgetfulness. Eventually, the two of them become friends of a sort, and Penny starts helping Harold navigate through the seemingly endless maze of the health care system. Meanwhile, a couple of overzealous zombie hunters also get some screen time, being interviewed about the changing face of British culture, and if it’s predictable that these two storylines are going to come crashing together eventually, well, so what?
This is a wonderful little movie—I gave it three and a half stars but gave it a miss on the Thousand-Best list back when I was doing that month’s revisions; time and distance have made me revisit the idea that it belongs with the three-and-a-half star movies that qualify, and it may show up there in the near future. Both Rowe and Spencer are perfect for their parts, and certainly deserve more exposure than they’ve gotten so far, while Wright (Take Me to Your Leader), who also wrote, has a fine eye for satire and a willingness to play things for laughs that most other directors would not—but balances that with as much heart as necessary to make this a movie that will stay with you far more for its empathy than its comedy long after you’ve finished watching it. There are a few minor places it could have used a bit more polish (e.g., the final sentence in the last paragraph above), but all of them are, ultimately, minor niggles in a movie that deserves far more recognition than it has received. *** ½