Vinette Robinson and Stephen Graham in Boiling Point
Andy Jones is clearly under pressure.
Philip Barantini’s film, which follows the unfolding disasters of one evening in a high-end London restaurant, is both a study of the head chef’s tragic downfall and a dynamic ensemble piece, following the interweaving tales of his staff and punters through this pressure-cooker work environment. The film begins with Andy’s shuffling (a bit faster than is comfortable) towards the restaurant, later than he should be – as usual. He is leaving an apologetic voicemail, to the wife he is currently divorcing, seemingly apologising for letting down his son. Stephen Graham’s tremendous gift for communicating a character’s quietly exhausted determination shines through every minute, this brief opening scene creating an effective contrast between the father losing authority within his family and the chef struggling to maintain the respect of his team. By the end of the film, we assume the ambiguous let-down has something to do with his drug addiction. The camera comes to rest after 90 minutes, as an overdose leaves Andy spasming on the floor, alone a back room, his muffled gasps drowned out by laughing patrons.
Drugs are Andy’s coping mechanism for the stress that occupies his every working (and waking) moment. Stress is probably Boiling Point’s main theme. Perhaps the most obvious recent comparison would be to the inexorable escalation of the plot of Uncut Gems, though Graham excels even further in portraying the wounded humanity beneath the bravado. Both are playing men just trying to do what they have to do, and in both cases, money is at the heart of the anxiety. Though his restaurant is successful – indeed, overbooked on the night in question – Andy lives in the shadow of a £200,000 debt to a rival restauranteur, former (and potentially future) collaborator Alastair Skye (a deliciously waspish Jason Flemying).
Unlike Sam Mendes’ entertaining (if a little exhausting) one-shot World War One drama 1917, which hid its cuts through (mostly convincing) camera tricks, Boiling Point is the real deal. There are a few moments where cuts could have been hidden (perhaps deliberately included as fail-safes), but Barantini uses none of them. The film is one take from start to finish. Watching Boiling Point, you probably already know this – though the film’s character-led drama helps you to forget quickly. Boiling Point truly is a rare film whose one-shot structure is wholly justified by content, but it is an undeniably powerful gimmick nonetheless – probably the film’s second-biggest individual selling point, from a marketing perspective, after the presence of the mighty Stephen Graham.
1917’s cinematography, which, though impressive at times, felt a little hampered during some action sequences by the laborious repositioning required of the camera. By contrast, Boiling Point’s fluid camerawork is a triumph of artful choreography. We peel off entirely naturally to follow various restaurant staff in the kitchen, serving tables, washing up, and working front of house, smoothly glimpsing impeccably scripted mini-narratives as we go. One waiter is vivaciously camp with a table of drunk women, but the performance evaporates the second he turns away; instead, he seems tired, crushed and demeaned. Elsewhere, we are shown the difference in courtesy afforded to different waitresses, due to ethnicity; when the maltreated Black waitress is sent back to the kitchen with an apparently unsatisfactory plate of lamb, she is then further slighted, this time by the kitchen staff who assume she has failed to explain the dish sufficiently. How could the aggressions of a racist patron be explained in an environment anathema to empathy? The pressure kills – rather than creates – camaraderie. Instead, downright hostility is fostered between the different teams of staff – each perpetually (and irrationally) suspicious of sabotage.
Naturally, the film is structured as a series of nearly worst-possible events. A health and safety inspection bumps their hygiene rating down from the full 5 to a mere 3 – largely due to Andy’s poor record-keeping and a culture of insufficient handwashing. They do not have enough ingredients, and the restaurant is overbooked. Then Alastair Skye turns up with a new business proposal and a food critic in tow. Bar a major fire, it is hard to imagine a more perfect storm of gastronomic incompetence, more and more mistakes creeping in as the team is stretched to its limits.
Boiling Point can be read as an apt comment on the pressures of filmmaking – the restaurant acting as a canny parallel for a film set. Both environments find artistic vision hitting against the practical limitations of time and money – while attempting to cater to a financially viable audience. They are potentially collegiate and creative but often turn hostile. Andy seems to epitomise the responsibility a director wields (and too frequently lack), simultaneously authoritative – kitchens, like film sets, have rigorously established chains of command – but with a duty to provide pay, resources and foster a positive work environment. Andy fails on almost every count; the team is stretched to breaking point, crushed by the emotional and physical labour of their jobs. Meanwhile, Andy seems to have cash flow issues, asked about late wages and challenged over his failure to ‘do the orders’. For a restaurant, not having enough food – and being forced to scrimp on portion sizes – is far from ideal. When everything spirals out of control, Alastair encourages Andy to blame second-in-command chef Carly (a steely Vinette Robinson, in an understated star turn). Thus, Boiling Point catalogues and cautions against the dangers of exploitation in pressurised workplaces. Split-second failures have morale-crushing consequences for both staff and patrons.
It is highly apt, then, that a film focused on the stress of a restaurant kitchen, where nothing can go wrong and timing is essential, has been shot in such a highly pressured single way. Production circumstances compound the meta-stress of the enterprise. The film was almost never made, shot the week before national lockdown was imposed in 2020. With its modest budget, only eight takes were scheduled over four days. Either they pulled it off or they didn’t. (In the end, only the third take was used.)
The film climaxes with two medical emergencies, first of a customer and then of Andy himself. When the kitchen mixes up the allergy requirements of a diner (whose partner was planning to propose to her that evening), it feels grimly inevitable. If you watch closely, you can see it happen before your eyes. The allergy is not recorded on the system, and Andy’s lack of ordering means that they run out of salad dressing. In a split-second decision, he tells a junior chef just to use another – which, it later transpires, contains the nuts to which she is dangerously allergic.
The film keeps many plates spinning in the air, deftly weaving subplot after subplot into a rich tapestry. Early in the film, Andy tells off a pastry chef for not rolling up his sleeves, before moving on to the main kitchen; the camera lingers to reveal that he is concealing evidence of self-harm. He is consoled by a fellow chef, but these moments of empathy are few and far between in such an intense workplace. Barantini and James Cummings script these details lightly, but they would be enough to sustain stories of their own. Boiling Point succeeds as a potent brew of tension, stress and the crushing weight of failure – a horror story of creative disappointment and anxiety, whose technical mastery should be admired, though it never distracts from the film’s gripping, compulsive effect.
Boiling PointDirected by Philip Barantini, Written by Philip Barantini and James Cummings, Cinematography by Matthew Lewis, Edited by Alex Fountain, Music by Aaron May and David Ridley, Starring Stephen Graham, Vinette Robinson, Alice Feetham, Hannah Walters, Malachi Kirby, Taz Skylar, Lauryn Ajufo, Daniel Larkai, Lourdes Faberes, Jason Flemying, Ray Panthaki