‘Between the Lights’ Review: Low-Key Romantic Drama with Spiritual Dimension Shows Another Side of England

There’s a side of the U.K. that rarely gets screen time in cinema. We see the unreal, prettified version in films like Notting Hill and The Holiday, and we see the grittified version in classics like Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” or Ken Loach’s “Kes.” Falling between two stools are the market towns and busy contemporary cathedral cities like York, where ancient architecture houses skincare brands like Kiehl’s. York is the setting for much of “Between the Lights,” a spiritually tinged romance which also dips into the nearby Lake District, including Keswick. The film duly opened the Keswick Film Festival this year, as well as playing Dances With Films in L.A., at which it won the jury prize.

The plot concerns a romance between Alice (a believable, natural performance from Ines de Clercq in her first substantial feature film role following a clutch of mostly small television assignments) and Jay (Samuel Edward-Cook, convincingly earnest and soulful). Alice and Jay have good chemistry and are largely compatible, save for one big difference between them: Jay is sensitive to paranormal energies, or so he claims. He’s aware of how that could come off and there’s no fervent attempt to convert Alice to a believer; if anything, he’s a little reluctant to admit to this unusual facet of his life. When he does open up, he talks about his gift in a rational, matter-of-fact way, citing various science-flavored explanations that aim to square the existence of ghosts with conventional physics. Similarly, Alice expresses her skepticism mildly and respectfully. She doesn’t scoff, but merely explains (repeatedly) why it’s all rather hard for her to take seriously.

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This kind of faith vs. empiricism Mulder/Scully dynamic usually reaches a moment where the film needs to decide whose worldview to back, and the demands of an engaging narrative generally make it far more satisfying to see the forces of the uncanny triumph over boring old reality. Whatever your take on such matters in the real world, when it comes to fiction, it’s harder to enjoy “and there was a perfectly logical explanation for everything” as screenwriters work hard to make such reveals compelling (the stock endings of Scooby-Doo mysteries are of course a notable exception). And so it proves here, although there’s also a bit of playing around with the extent to which aspects of the paranormal phenomena may or may not be in the mind.

The film is perhaps subtle to a fault. The romance is nicely played and the leads have good chemistry, but it’s also fairly polite and restrained. Similarly, the ghostly elements are pretty low-key — most of the bumps in the night are more tentative knocks. The tragic elements are sad, but you won’t bust a gut weeping. There are a couple of striking scenes: one referencing the road sign in “L.A. Story” is fun, not least for the sign in question here turning out to be a grammar pedant. Overall, “Between the Lights” could have benefited from trusting its instincts and cutting loose like this a little more: You find yourself craving some headboard-shaking passion or rattling of spectral chains or hair-tearing misery.

The film’s strongest moments are its most distinctive, but it never really achieves Stephen King’s elusive “gotta” factor, the hook which compels one to say: “I think I’ll stay up another 15-20 minutes, honey, I gotta see how this chapter comes out” (in the author’s own words). That being the case, and given it’s a little restrained for hardcore genre fans, it seems unlikely to scare up huge global audiences, but locals will enjoy seeing their home turf so lovingly rendered.

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