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Yesterday

Year: 2019
Production Co: Decibel Films
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Sanjeev Bhaskar

When two scions of British cinema like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis come together, the results were always going to be interesting. Boyle is a visualist, and he's not usually that interested in the gilded, clean, romantic view of life Curtis' modern day fairytales are. Was it going to be a seamless blend or a bit of a struggle of conflicting voices?

The result is more Curtis than Boyle – witness the way romantic entanglements are wrapped up so neatly and the dependably comic sidekick. The concept behind the script and the cute casting does most of the work, but while there are certainly no grungy locales, explosive profanity or the destructive assertion of self righteous temper by bad people Boyle usually trucks in, he gets to stretch his surrealist wings once or twice and it's full of his sweeping, energetic camerawork.

Himesh Patel is Jack, a struggling musician on the verge of throwing in the towel after years of effort for no appreciable result. His cute schoolteacher best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, with the signature Curtis child-like cute quotient cranked up higher than you've ever seen from her – and effectively so) thinks giving up is a terrible idea, believing in him when nobody else does, not even Jack himself.

Walking home one night, downhearted and certain it's time to stop throwing good energy after bad into his moribund career, Jack is hit by a bus at the exact moment a massive power outage sweeps the globe. He wakes up in hospital feeling a bit worse for wear but okay, the devoted Ellie by his side and making us realise she's holding a large candle for him.

You wouldn't call Curtis a sci-fi writer but this isn't the first time he's used amazing phenomena to explore the lives and loves of real people (see About Time), and the script reveals the conceit slowly and very skilfully. It starts when Jack, Ellie and two of their friends are sitting in a pub beer garden talking about his recovery and ask him to play something. He plays the Beatles' Yesterday and they're all taken aback by this beautiful song they've apparently never heard.

For awhile Jack thinks everyone's just winding him up, but the truth is gradually revealed – whatever happened the fateful night of his accident has caused an alternate history when the Fab Four never existed. After getting over the initial shock, Jack realises he has an opportunity. Apparently the only human being on Earth who knows their immortal songs, he desperately tries to remember and write them down, sure they'll launch him to stardom (a repeated motif about trying to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby is particularly amusing).

When heat starts to build around his career Jack is overjoyed, touring internationally and with even new friend Ed Sheeran (playing himself) saying he's been bested by greatness.

But when he's whisked off to LA to be prepackaged as a musical commodity under the tutelage of a fiercely uncompromising, straight talking and hilarious showbiz agent (Kate McKinnon), Jack starts to realise – oft-trod moral of the story alert – stardom isn't all it was cracked up to be, and because Ellie's stayed behind, unable to leave her teaching job, maybe he had everything he needed right in front of him the whole time.

It's all incredibly sweet hearted and lovely, the England of Jack's world, family and circle of friend as fulsome and quaint as LA is portrayed as a suntanned swimming pool full of sharks.

James is endlessly watchable even when she's playing it this twee and most of the supporting cast are all funny and charming with the exception of the dreadfully stiff and wooden Ed Sheeran, who confirms the fact that musical performance prowess doesn't automatically translate to acting ability.

But there's a further satisfying element where Curtis' script doesn't just spin up the high sci-fi concept to give Jack his crisis and then abandon it. The expressions on two serious-faced strangers who keep showing up at his performances seem to harbour a sinister secret that isn't revealed until nearly the end – and gives the film its biggest wish fulfilment moment.

And it's the gags about other stuff that also don't exist in the new universe and sends Jack onto Google searches (cigarettes, Harry Potter) that round it all off and remind you of the rules in the world you've found yourself in.

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