Brakes is a bittersweet, raw comedy about love, sex, and relationships, with stellar performances from its large ensemble cast.
Brakes starts off seemingly as an emotional drama, tying together nine dysfunctional couples in the process of splitting apart. Split into two distinct halves, the film opens with the brutal pain of multiple romances collapsing, but the second half goes back in time to when each of them first met, reassembling each couple into the start of their happy, romantic relationship. The unconventional and idiosyncratic narrative is a clever subversion of a rom-com, and is an endearing, and very funny, look at modern relationships.
The debut feature of writer/director Mercedes Grower, Brakes takes place amongst iconic landscapes in central and north London, its varied locations working as a sort of matchmaker for the nine couples, enabling their romances to blossom in extraordinary ways. Similarly, the city provides a dark backdrop to the problems each couple faces, the coldness and distance between them almost part of the landscape. Mistrust, contempt, jealousy, all contribute to the wounds tearing these couples apart, and London is a hard place to be when your world shatters. Each of these couples struggles to remain connected within the fragmented city, but the warmth of London feels just as important as what’s going on in the hearts and minds of all the characters. In Brakes, everything collapses, but then is reborn; the city, like love, is seen in a new light.
With talent including Noel Fielding, Julian Barratt, Julia Davis, Kerry Fox, Paul McGann, Roland Gift and Kate Hardie, there are some remarkable performances from the cast. Given that the film was improvised, and shot over a four year period, the characterisation they embody is impressive, and whilst not every scene fits together, and the film occasionally seems a bit fragmented, each couple’s story provides an enjoyable comedic balance of discomfort, pain, and happiness. We see love-gone-stale; infidelity; failed one-night-stands; bad matches; disappointing cybersex; loneliness; isolation; and just the drabness of mundanity of everyday relationships: all these are played with richness and depth, and a skilled directorial touch from Grower.
Shot on digital video, guerilla-style, Brakes is obviously micro-budget, and it does show. Quite a few of the shots were out of focus, and more attention could have been paid to the cinematography, particularly given the intimacy of the subject matter. The naturalistic style of shooting may have been better suited to a more conventional drama, but with the quirky, almost surreal, nature of some of the scenes, it was a little jarring. However, the story is so charming and the ensemble cast so great, that Grower’s observations of romance amongst the disconnect of London life makes Brakes a genuinely pleasurable and heartfelt watch.