David Nicholls has had a varied career to date and has won acclaim for his work in TV and film, as well as his fiction. His first feature was an adaptation of Sam Shepard’s stage-play Simpatico (1999). Nicholls then cut his teeth contributing scripts for the popular TV series Cold Feet (2000). He gained wider recognition with his acclaimed book One Day, which was made into a film in 2011. Despite his success in cinema, Nicholls has retained his affection for television. His latest offering, The 7.39 (2014), demonstrates his usual flair for convincing characters and dialogue but lacks the rigour and passion of past work.
Carl (Red Riding’s David Morrissey), a commercial property agent and Sally (stage and screen star Sheridan Smith), the manager of a gym, meet on the crowded 7.39 train to London Waterloo. Their first words are spoken in anger as Carl wrongly accuses Sally of stealing his seat. The next day, however, he apologises for his unchivalrous behaviour and a flirtation begins between the two. Wisely, Nicholls refuses to rush the romance and the first half of his two-hour drama is taken up with developing the couple’s unconsummated relationship. A train strike provides them with the opportunity to stay overnight in London and take things further. We quickly realise that the pair’s romantic attachment is unlikely to end well.
Despite being undeniably bored with the monotony of his daily commute to work Carl is, to all intents and purposes, happily married to Maggie (Olivia Colman) with two children. Sally is engaged to her personal-trainer boyfriend Ryan (Sean Maguire) who is keen to start a family. We sense that Carl and Sally fall into the affair because they want some respite from the predictability of their home lives. They are also clearly sexually attracted to one another, and yet, confounding our expectations, their first attempt to consummate their relationship almost ends in failure. The second half of Nicholls’ drama is taken up with the blossoming and then unravelling of their love and the reactions of their respective partners to their infidelity.
Although The 7.39 clearly recalls David Lean’s 1945 classic Brief Encounter (deemed by many to be the most romantic film of all time), it’s a far more desultory affair. Despite the top-notch cast and John Alexander’s slick direction, it’s hard to fully engage with the lovers’ predicament. But maybe that’s the point – they have loving spouses hovering in the background and their sense of responsibility finally smothers any passion. Nicholls is not known for his conventionally happy endings. He’s more interested in his characters’ journey and is adept at depicting life’s disappointments – the anxieties and resentments of ordinary people and the compromises they are forced to make.