Rarely in these dark days of The Hangover and Hall Pass do you watch intelligent men on screen indulging in a week-long profound and funny conversation. But Third Star, with its deceptively simple plot — three lads go camping with a dying friend — manages to be both a mad romp along the stunning Pembrokeshire coast and a heartbreaking insight into friendship.
Whether it is three men in boat or four men in a tent, even pleasurable expeditions involve privations that bring out the best and worst in people, often amusingly. The director Hattie Dalton lets her cast of four josh, jape and improvise until their English middle-class reserve cracks open beneath the comedy. Just because their mate is terminally ill, the lads see no reason not to make fun of him, and combine tenderness with brutal honesty. “It’s like going for a walk with a sick, white Oprah,” they laugh when he tries to advise them on their lives. “You look like shit,” adds one, helpfully.
There is a knockout central performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as James, a strange, ethereal creature with a will of iron, who sports a brown fedora. James is 29, and will not see his 30th birthday, because of an unspecified cancer. The old friends rounded up for his last hurrah are played by the handsome trio of J. J. Feild, Adam Robertson and Tom Burke with a chemistry partly acted and partly brought about by the exigencies of the shoot — hours spent in frozen water in Barafundle Bay, coupled with grim food and collapsing tents.
The wild Welsh landscape plays a role of its own, reflecting the men’s moods and memories, all exquisitely shot in autumn on grainy film by Dalton in her first feature. This is also a first for the scriptwriter Vaughan Sivell, who catches the Hornbyesque nuances of bloke banter and then probes deeper. All the characters are endearing in different ways — the dark side is, of course, provided offstage by death.
The lads are from a generation that hasn’t really needed to grow up and face danger or war, and they want what James calls a “man thrill”. High on morphine, James tries to lecture his friends on their future, as they stand on the thirtysomething cusp of families, commitments, and careers that he will never have. The lads fight back with spliffs, beer and humour, yet as they divest themselves of emotional and physical baggage — they are the most incompetent of campers — the men struggle with an ethical dilemma, and prove themselves unlikely heroes.
The camping trip slips into another dimension, and the surreal atmosphere is aided by barking cameos by fine actors — Hugh Bonneville as a beachcomber obsessed with toy light sabres and Karl Johnson as a crusty old ferryman who, oddly, wears blue eye shadow.
Third Star dares to tackle the taboos of youthful death with great humour and warmth, and it is an assured debut for Dalton. Occasionally the trip loses its way, with some unlikely plot devices, and it would have been fun to have more of the surreal elements. Yet it feels cathartic. I spent much of the latter half of the film trying not to bawl out loud. The story’s ending is uplifting as well as emotionally devastating: the audience sat in stunned silence afterwards.