Almost Strangers (2001)

“Every time I wake up, there’s someone new at the end of my bed.”

In the BBC 3-part mini-series, Almost Strangers the Symon family holds a large reunion in a posh London hotel. The reunion is a highly organized, three-day event, funded by the eldest and richest family member, Ernest (Peter Howell). The idea is that members of the family will attend and mingle with those they’ve never met–or haven’t seen in decades.

Black sheep Raymond (Michael Gambon) is the head of the relatively lowly Hillingdon branch of the Symon family. Raymond severed all ties with the rest of the Symons years ago, and after running his office furniture shop according to his father’s ideals, he’s now a bankrupt. His only son, surveyor Daniel (Matthew MacFayden) and Raymond’s wife Esther (Jill Baker) are curious about their estranged relatives and persuade Raymond to go to the reunion. He sourly and reluctantly agrees.

The reunion is efficiently organized by perfectionist Poppy (Kelly Hunter)–a woman who stresses over every napkin placement. Family archivist, Stephen (Anton Lester)–a man who obsesses about Symon family history conducts mini-seminars on researching a family tree. While Raymond mostly grumps about rubbing elbows with his obviously much more successful relatives, his wife dives into the subject of genealogy, and Daniel makes fast friends with his new-found cousins, an oddly adrift brother and sister–Rebecca (Claire Skinner) and Charles (Toby Stephens).

Over the course of the long weekend, major and minor disasters occur, and both Raymond and Daniel become obsessed with childhood photographs. Raymond’s photograph–which he’s kept framed and cherished in his living room–depicts Raymond pointing and laughing. Archivist Stephen reveals that in the photograph Raymond was actually laughing at his father who was hamming it up in a Tyrolean hat and striking various poses. Raymond tries to remember the incident, and while he only possesses the vaguest shreds of memory of the event, something about the photo haunts him. Similarly, Daniel is shown a picture of himself as a small boy dressed in a fancy dress costume and peeking out from the elaborate ironwork of a circular staircase. Daniel has no memory of this–but more importantly–neither do his parents. Questions remains–who took the photograph of Daniel, and where was it taken?

Emphasizing the idea that family members share more traits than they care to admit, director Stephen Poliakoff brilliantly weaves together various stories of several members of the Symon family. Archivist Stephen states that every family hides several amazing stories, and these hidden stories emerge throughout the course of the reunion, and also in the subsequent party held at a splendid former Symon country property. The Symon family includes a diverse bunch of characters–there’s elegant, calm Alice (Lindsay Duncan) who brought up Rebecca and Charles, pushy entrepreneur Irving (Timothy Spall) and three elderly sisters whose biscuit hoarding can be perfectly explained. Approximately 4 hours long, Almost Strangers is great entertainment, and cleverly conveys the trepidation and excitement the imposing reunion represents to Raymond–a troubled character who decides to face his failures in front of a room full of strangers. Gambon is an amazing actor, and the role of Raymond allows him a full range of emotions and behaviour. The film’s slightly trite ending can be forgiven–especially with the solid acting from the entire cast.

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