After eye-catching turns in such films as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Last King of Scotland, James McAvoy makes a convincing bid for leading-man status as Brian Jackson, a gauche working- class lad in his first year at Bristol University in 1985. He tries out for the team entering University Challenge and ends up torn between a posh blonde team- mate Alice (Alice Eve) and the politically earnest Rebecca. Since this is a romantic comedy, you don’t need to be Bamber to figure out where it’s all going and how it will end.
Tom Vaughan’s film, based on a novel by David Nicholls, has all the lad-lit tropes of girl trouble, fights (although Brian tends to injure himself), an obsession with trivia and the gradual journey towards emotional maturity. But whereas the comic memoirs of Nick Hornby and John O’Farrell had something to say about being, respectively, a list-making fan and a political activist, Brian’s obsession with general knowledge is too random and less interesting.
Despite all this, the film is hugely enjoyable. Sure, its portrayal of radical student politics is confined to the occasional placard waving, and the Eighties pop-laden soundtrack (Cure fans will be in heaven) shamelessly courts the “I love nostalgia” TV generation. And you sometimes wish that Catherine Tate had been given more to get her teeth into as Brian’s widowed mother. But the university experience — incompatible flatmates, embarrassing old friends arriving unexpectedly from home, the alcoholic oblivion, the first date — is delivered with verve and a winning charm.
Hall and Eve bring a spirited warmth to their characters and Benedict Cumberbatch is a scene-stealer as the priggish team captain. Best of all is McAvoy. His performance deserves full honours for the the naturalness with which he conveys Brian’s awkwardness and brings depth to such scenes as recalling his dead father. He’s the appealing heart of a film that provides warm, cosy viewing. Sometimes warm and cosy is just what one wants. And you get Charles Dance naked as well.