The trick with running a restaurant is to make it look effortless. The diners should never see the sweat on your brow or feel the jolt of panic coursing through the kitchen as the turbot runs out, or the impact on morale when the blowhard bigots on table nine start making your young Black waitress feel uncomfortable. And they should definitely not hear a big-voiced, stressed-out Liverpudlian chef shouting: ‘Foook lad, sort it!’ at the cowed commis chef shucking oysters the wrong way.
There’s an invisible membrane that sits between staff and diners and none of those things should ever permeate it. Boiling Point, a brilliantly effective cortisol flood of a culinary drama filmed in one tension-drenched shot, is what happens when they do. And the fact that the stressy Liverpudlian is played by a bang-on-form Stephen Graham gives this tight-wire device the perfect actor around which to orbit.
Graham is star chef, Andy Jones. Or at least, he was star chef Andy Jones. From his patina of sweat and jittery energy, it’s apparent that the top man at this buzzy east London restaurant (it was filmed in Dalston’s Jones & Sons) is now saucing more than just plates of lamb. There are a hundred covers in, it’s Christmas and the staff are hardly functioning as a collective. To make things worse, a health inspector is busy-bodying around with a clipboard and a litany of ‘concerns’. Oh, and the nut allergy on table 13 isn’t in the system. What could go possibly wrong?
Director Philip Barantini, who found freshness in the weary genre of the London crime thriller with Villain, has expanded his own acclaimed 22-minute short film by a factor of four without losing an iota of its piano-wire tension. Because unlike 1917 or Birdman, there aren’t any cuts here – hidden or otherwise. The relentlessness of that ever-rolling camera (a digital lens on a rig) in a confined space slowly pulls the air from your lungs. You start feeling like you’re pulling up a seat with the other diners for a relaxing evening, and end up thinking more about weeping by the bins.
It was all filmed in two days, a technical feat that speaks of a tonne of rehearsing, immaculate blocking and on-point performances. But Boiling Point is more than a gimmick, and the script does its best to give supporting characters their due in the moments when Graham isn’t in frame. Like a nosy diner, the camera darts off to follow a staffer to a shifty drug deal out back and spends welcome time with big-hearted pastry chef Emily (Hannah Walters, Graham’s partner IRL).
Particularly effective is some phoney front-of-house bonhomie between Jones and Jason Flemyng’s insufferable celebrity chef, a supposed ‘friend’ who makes the doubly pass-agg move of pitching up unannounced and with a notoriously sharp-fanged restaurant critic in tow (Lourdes Faberes). ‘We’re just here to support you,’ he grins at Jones, as he starts relitigating old beef over new lamb.
Less good is a group of unconvincing Insta influencers who inflame tensions between the unpopular restaurant manager (Alice Feetham) and a kitchen already festering over a lack of pay rises. And the racist at table 13 also feels cardboard and under-explored compared with the richer dynamics playing out behind the grills.
But Graham’s well-drawn chef-on-the-edge has enough sharp edges to obscure any blunter characterisation around him, and Vinette Robinson is terrific alongside him as the restaurant’s ship-steadying sous chef Carly. She even steals scenes from her better-known co-star, as she charts a rock-solid professional trying hard to fill a gap left by a man crumbling away. All in all, it’s the best kind of worst ever restaurant trip.
In UK cinemas Dec 29.