UK (2006) Dir. Sean Ellis
Beauty, as 19th century writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford famously observed in her novel Molly Bawn, is in the eye of the beholder. This can also take many forms and can be found in the most unlikely of places depending on that eye – even a late night Sainsbury’s!
Art student Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) has broken up with his girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) and now suffers from insomnia. To pass the time he takes a night shift job at his local Sainsbury’s, alongside a colourful bunch of co-workers who have their own way of dealing with the eight-hour shift. Ben’s way is to mentally freeze time, a trick which becomes real, allowing him to observe his new muse, checkout girl Sharon (Emilia Fox).
The cover of the DVD suggests a saucy and surreal outing awaits us and while there is a kernel of truth to that, this distinctly British indie film is more of a whimsical meditation on the love, life and the concept of beauty. Yes, there is nudity but it plays largely into Ben’s artistic vision of the female form, along with explaining the growing pains of two curious young boys.
I have to stress the “distinctly British” part of the above paragraph, as it would appear that some viewers of Cashback situated outside of our shores didn’t seem to appreciate many of the nuances and quirks of the narrative and content. Terms like “self-indulgent”, “offensive to women” and even “porn” have been bandied about while criticism of the characters and the quality of the film itself have been negative.
But Cashback has so much to offer beyond nudity and bawdy humour, providing us with a tender, if rather predictable, romance story with the message of making the most of the time you have but remember to stop every now and then to enjoy it. Admittedly the time freeze gimmick seems a little out of place at first, especially when Ben is to be able to use it at will but it adds a certain sparkle to the proceedings especially the climax.
If the content is coarse it is used to mock the ego of the other men Ben and Sharon are surrounded by whose thoughts are consumed with little else than sex. Store manager Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin) is the David Brent of the outfit, while Barry (Michael Dixon) and Matt (Michael Lambourne) are the resident goofballs, the latter falsely claiming Sharon slept with him. Finally martial arts nut Brian (Marc Pickering) joins the fray.
Out of that lot, it’s no wonder that Sharon eventually falls for Ben, but for him it is initially a distant obsession with Sharon’s feminine form what bewitches him. When he freezes time, Ben likes to draw the women in the store – partially undressed – later concentrating solely on Sharon (fully clothed). If this sounds a bit dodgy, Ben draws the women in situ, delighting in the natural shapes created by their poses.
In other words Ben is doing what he would do in an art class with a human model, his sketches capturing the beauty he sees in the all parts of the female body. Granted doing this in a supermarket with unsuspecting models sounds a tad gratuitous and I’m sure some will object to the scene involving a young Ben (Frank Hesketh) watching a naked Swedish boarder (Hayley-Marie Coppin) ascend the stairs.
But writer-director Sean Ellis doesn’t present Ben as a pervert or a letch, leaving that the other idiots – Ben’s view is one of appreciation and artistic wonder, which is reflected in his lack of confidence around women. A look back into Ben’s formative years reveals this is a long held philosophy, while his best mate Shaun (Shaun Evans) is the exact opposite, his path to sexual adulthood littered with incidents some viewers of a certain vintage will recognise.
Obviously trying to justify nudity as artistic or tasteful is often met with derision so it is best to make your own mind about whether Ellis was being genuine or gratuitous. What will work against it is the juxtaposition of the overt ribald humour which is frankly no worse than anything seen in American Pie films, only it is with a wry British cheekiness to it.
Ellis’s film started life as a short film made in 2004 which went on to win many awards, the complete contents of which are included in this extended version, and flawlessly integrated too. For a relatively low budget affair this is a good-looking film, well shot and tightly edited without feeling overproduced. The time freeze spots are very well done and must have been a chore for the actors seeing some of the poses they are forced to hold.
Most of the cast won’t be well known outside of Michelle “Eastenders” Ryan and Emilia Fox, whose participation is surprising for such a renowned TV star, and at 34 at the time a decade older than her co-stars. Despite this Fox makes for a suitably humble love interest for the amiable Ben, played by Sean Biggerstaff, who previous appeared in the Harry Potter films.
Another curiosity about this film is how Sainsbury’s were persuaded to lend their name and their imagery – not to mention one of their stores – to this production especially given some of the content. My mother used to work for Sainsbury’s so I know the uniforms and such were genuine for the period, giving this setting an extra credibility not afforded by a fictional supermarket.
Playing Devil’s Advocate I can see why some people might not appreciate the nudity and lecherous male behaviour but Sean Ellis is far too smart and thoughtful to be that shallow and superficial. Cashback puts a whimsical spin on romantic endeavours and does so with subtle British cheek and gusto.
Don’t judge this title by the DVD cover and you might be pleasantly surprised.