Helen Tope reviews Tucked, showing in our cinema until Wednesday 31 July.
Set in Brighton, Tucked tells the story of an unlikely friendship. Jackie is a 74-year-old drag queen, the star turn at a local club. His set features jokes – the ruder the better – and he works the audience like a charm. Minus the wig, Jackie is trading on the classic techniques of stand-up. It is familiar, if risqué, and the audience can’t get enough.
Starting her first night at the club, we meet 21-year-old Faith (Jordan Stephens). With a look that’s more Lady Gaga than Gloria Gaynor, Faith ruffles the feathers of the older queens – she is far too pretty and far too young.
Faith takes to the stage, and Jackie watches from the wings. Singing a self-penned torch song, Faith is bold, unique and uncompromising. Refusing to be labelled, Faith is a non-binary drag queen built in the 21st century. Jackie is impressed by the kid’s chutzpah – Faith coolly tells him that the song is the sum of biographical experience.
After heading home, Jackie – who has been coughing and spluttering through his set – suddenly collapses. The diagnosis is devastating: Jackie has an aggressive form of cancer, and six to seven weeks at most.
Determined to spend his last weeks doing what he loves, Jackie returns to the club. He befriends Faith after realising she is homeless. It is an odd couple pairing that is delicious to watch. But for all the banter, there is a father-son connection that emerges, as Jackie comes to terms with his diagnosis. In talking about his past, Faith realises that Jackie needs to repair his relationship with his daughter, Lily.
As a straight man, Jackie’s wife was so ashamed by his predilection for wearing women’s clothes, that she made him promise not to attend her funeral. Lily, unaware of the promise, hasn’t spoken to Jackie since. Faith and Jackie contact Lily via Facebook, and wait for a response. Has Jackie left it too late?
Tucked is one of those British films that we do so well. The language – moving swiftly from one-liners to confession – is deftly handled. Nothing feels forced, or overly sentimental. In fact, the hard-nosed edge of Tucked gives the tender scenes an extra poignancy. The tone is tricky to master with a film that merges comedy with drama. Too treacly and it’s unwatchable. Too gritty, and we’re left asking – where’s the heart?
Patterson answers this dilemma with his camera work. With battle-hardened Jackie, Patterson doesn’t shy away from the craggy contours of Nesbitt’s face. The lines are celebrated, as the camera roves over Jackie’s face in the opening scene, with a love and care normally reserved for starlets. With pain and anguish clearly visible on Jackie’s face, Patterson argues that glamour is more than what is tucked away.
Faith, on the other hand, starts the film as an ultra-glamorous siren. The look is too much for a small club, but Faith is defiant. As the film progresses, Faith’s look softens and becomes lighter, more youthful, A Hello Kitty backpack worn down the high street speaks volumes. With a surrogate father in Jackie, Faith allows herself to experience the delight in being young.
As the film moves through Jackie’s illness, the question of forgiveness is explored. In respecting his wife’s wishes, Jackie has damaged his relationship with his daughter. Being forced to make such an unbearable decision, it’s not so much whether Lily will forgive him, but whether Jackie can forgive himself.
The success of a film like this is almost entirely dependent on the skill of its leads. One half of the hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks, Jordan Stephens is an unlikely casting prospect, but the gamble definitely pays off. As Faith, Stephens finds both the vulnerability and strength in the character, as she persuades Jackie to seek out resolution.
As Jackie, Derren Nesbitt fills the screen. An 83-year-old veteran of film and television work, Nesbitt has been previously known for his supporting roles, including Von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare, but in playing the protagonist, here he is sensational. Calm, measured and confident, Nesbitt’s performance has been decades in the making. He exudes warmth and charm, but the pain drips through, bit by bit. In an astonishing portrayal, Nesbitt allows us to see what keeping a promise has cost.
Packed full of life-affirming moments, Tucked is of those rare films that treads the balance between the rawness of pain and the euphoria of feel-good. At a point where we find ourselves dominated by extremes, Tucked makes a plea for nuance and subtlety. A film about drag queens may not be the most obvious place to find it, but Jamie Patterson places an emphasis on forgiveness and understanding that underpins the entire film. A piece of generous film-making, Tucked has its gaze set firmly on the future. Resolve, repair and redeem – it’s not a bad way to live.