What makes Stephen Graham a great actor is his ability to float between moods, shifting from apoplectic to apologetic in a matter of seconds, tipping from warm generosity to imperilled anguish at the earliest inconvenience. In Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point, which is expanded from a short of the same name, the mercurial swings in Graham’s performance keep the film together, as much as he’s allowed to.
To the film’s detriment, it’s filmed in a continuous take; the camera trails and travels through the interior of a London restaurant, passing the narrative baton on through the different zones of the space: dining room, bar, kitchen, back kitchen, toilet, office, alleyway. The draw of the one take feature film is obviated here, since Boiling Point doesn’t take place in real time: an evening is condensed into 90 minutes, and while in another director’s hands this might convey the rush of the characters’ environment, in Barantini’s it denotes a bit of temporal confusion, and a real challenge to the latter half’s amping up of the stakes, which appears more than slightly rushed.
To its credit, the film opens with aplomb. Graham’s Andy, co-head chef of the Dalston eatery, is struggling: his family life is a mess; a supercilious hygiene inspector has just downgraded the place’s rating; his colleague Carly (Vinette Robinson), a steadfast supporter and friend, is nearing her wits’ end with him; his old mentor, a celebrity chef, Alastair (Jason Flemyng), is to dine; there’s a proposal at table thirteen; manager Beth (Alice Freetham) is paying too much attention to the restaurant’s social media feeds and not to the business itself and the people who work in it; and the kitchen is in disarray, since Andy hasn’t been in the headspace to complete the relevant orders and inventory.
If that’s not tense enough, the diners add to his worries: Alastair is dining with a food critic, Sara (Lourdes Faberes), whose presence Andy was not forewarned about; a racist diner gives Andrea (Lauryn Ajufo), one of the wait staff, a hellish time; a table of drunk women and another of demanding influencer blokes impose upon the other staff members’ already frayed nerves; and the words “nut allergy” are repeated on enough occasions to signal the inevitable. The service can only end in disaster.
Which is why the slick visual choreography doesn’t do the film the favour it thinks it does. The hectic mood of the film is contrasted by the camera’s skillful weaving in and out of discrete spaces, displaying a sense of organisation that is firmly at odds with the uncontrollable contingency of the many threats in plain sight. It doesn’t help the script either, which is full of time-biding dialogue, and a handful of narrative dead ends. It also gives a set of characters short shrift, and leaves them half-interacted with: everyone in the back kitchen, for instance, is given their one Plot Relevant Disclosure, and not a moment more (except for Daniel Larkai’s Jake, a Black kitchen porter, who is on screen long enough to be stereotyped as lazy).
Boiling Point is commendable when it observes the rhythms and noises of the kitchen, and the film’s best scene emerges from a demonstration of what made Andy and Carly’s partnership a good idea in the first place. Plating a duck dish together, the pair move in unison, aware of the way the other will lean out and then in, which part of the plate they will attend to next, and where one will pass off to the other. Likewise, the rest of the chefs (played by Ray Panthaki, Malachi Kirby and Izuka Hoyle) know their roles; the way they either commune with or combat Andy makes up a not insignificant part of the final half hour, and each actor is game and attuned. This is where Graham’s presence is most marked: as a kind of mentor for some of the chefs, a friend, full of jokes and encouragement; or as an adversary, furious, letting his famous intensity as an actor burst through the already harried energy.
The film’s title, not accidentally, is also the title of a documentary series about Gordon Ramsay, a chef well known for engendering horrific working conditions for his staff. (Alastair, with his TV show, his inability to look people in the eye, and his penchant for repeating the word “amazing,” seems to be modelled on him.) Boiling Point is something of a riposte to the machismo of these environments, a warning about masculinity and its discontents. But its last half hour sinks what could be of interest in such a set-up, stuck as it is with a stylistic device that requires dramatic outsourcing away from its most potent scenario (the kitchen), and distracted by the (too) many potential accelerants littered across the film’s separate narrative areas.