Editor’s note: See PopMatters’ interview with Hattie Dalton.
“Did you ever get the urge to do something really dangerous?”, James (Benedict Cumberbatch) asks in Third Star. The terminally ill 29-year-old urges his friends to take him on a road trip to Barafundle Bay, on Wales’ rugged southern shore. He imagines they’re headed to a paradise, although the journey is tortuous to bodies as well as relationships. As so often happens in such uplifting movies about young men bonding, the camping trip becomes a metaphor for life.
As the adventure begins, at least some of the obstacles look obvious. In an early scene, James and his friends—each identifiable as a type: cynical writer Miles (JJ Field), devoted caretaker Davy (Tom Burke), cocky outdoorsman Bill (Adam Roberts)—careen down a hill on the three-wheeled cart he uses for transport. Despite the bright music and their big smiles (or because of them), we’re aware of the potential danger of a nasty spill.
The boys blow off steam and blow up fireworks: it’s all good fun until someone burns down the campsite. That event signals the beginning of the end of their carefully planned adventure. Now the friends must face the reality of James’ condition, despite their initial upbeat determination to avoid thinking about it too closely. Davy has steadfastly assisted James throughout his illness, to the point that James wonders what his caretaker will do when no longer needed. Although Davy daily helps James with such simple tasks as tying shoelaces, Miles stayed well away after James’ diagnosis and only during the camping trip sees his dependence on morphine, as well as his friends. Even Bill, who drags along a sapling to plant in James’ honor and plans the shortest route to Barafundle Bay, can’t fathom James’ desire to meet death on his own terms.
Each character illustrates a different method of dealing with death and eventually decides how best to live his life, no matter how long (or short) it may be. But even as Third Star features some honest discussion of the right to die, it is far from depressing. The characters’ black humor and their frank conversations have inspired some dedicated fans over 2010 and 2011, when it’s appeared in festivals and select theaters (it comes to VOD on 14 August). Its persistence is testament not only to its themes, but also to its art. Cinematographer Carlos Catalán beautifully frames images of rolling clouds chasing away the sun, birds taking flight, and the mercurial sea alternately caressing and tormenting the shore.
Lovely as they may be, such images are not subtle. As bonfire sparks escape into the starry night, we make the connection to James’ dwindling life spark and the heavens into which he hopes to ascend. When a lone figure standing on shore faces the encroaching waves (a transitional image used more than once), we’re reminded again of James’ impending death. “This trip is like going for a walk with a sick white Oprah,” Miles complains when James tries yet again to ascribe far more meaning than warranted to every moment of their trip.
Such meaning is frequently articulated by the characters. In words and actions. Cumberbatch is convincingly illustrates James’ grief in a scene in which he lies down in tall grass, tracing his finger along a single blade as a tear slips down his cheek. He movingly voices James’ plea to be allowed to decide how to live the remainder of his life. He risks playing with fire, whether literally running his fingers through the flaming candles on what is likely his last birthday cake or figuratively by offering unsolicited advice to his closest friends about how they should live their lives.
Their choices are occasionally reframed, as when they encounter a beachcomber (Hugh Bonneville), who salvages tiny bits of collectible toys that wash ashore from decades-old shipwrecks. He understands what it means to lose a good friend, having done so, and, despite his sometimes nonsensical conversation, offers the foursome solace. Everyone comes to see the value of living each day to its fullest, a cliché but also heartfelt here.
At least part of that feeling is invested in the vibrant setting, ranging from stormy seas to gentle sunlight filtered through trees, a love letter to Wales. In this place, so bursting with life, the friends learn that death is part of everyone’s cycle.