John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Thriller, romantic-comedy farce worth your time

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Lennie James is best known in America for his role as Morgan in "The Walking Dead," but this British series starring and written by James offers a compelling side of him that exists far away from zombies in the gritty streets and public housing of England.

As Nelly Rowe, James is a charming ne'er do well who wanders from woman to woman and often plants himself in his local pub, The Palm Tree, which is frequented by a group of rowdy regulars and owned by his friend Stace (Susan Lynch). When Nelly is taken into custody one morning when the police bust into his girlfriend Teens' (Kerry Godliman) apartment. Nelly finds out that he's suspected of kidnapping his 13-year-old daughter, who he hasn't seen in 10 years and whose mother, Claire (Suranne Jones) has deliberately kept Nelly out of their life.

The police warn him to stay out of it, but Nelly now has a mission thanks to his unique combination of having a big heart and as well as a compulsion to prove himself as worthwhile. Nelly's placement in the city's underbelly gives him an advantage that the police don't have, but he soon discovers that in his quest for his missing daughter, there are depths lower than those he's accustomed to and he turns to his friend Melon (the always compelling Stephen Graham) to help him out when Nelly discovers that Melon's dark, secret shame is also a ticket into this forbidden, hidden world.

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As Nelly, James is alive and vivid and raw, charming you to death one moment and then tearing your heart out. This is no normal suspense thriller though and it's only partly about his effort to save his daughter. A lot of time is spent looking at Nelly's relationships with the various people in his circle of barflies, and especially with Claire and the guilt he feels. This attention to character detail will draw you in as much as if not more than the kidnapping plot, but every dramatic twist and turn, every interaction with another character boosts your insight to Nelly, and it continues to build throughout the series. James really shows off his talents here and they are considerable.


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I am, very honestly, not the intended audience for romantic comedies, and by proxy, historical romances. In the former, the romance aspects are usually bourgeois and the comedy aspects just aren't funny to me. In the latter, no matter what the rule-breaking circumstances of the romance are, the pairing always ends up hiding within the accepted conventions of society.

The French film, "Return of the Hero," however, is none of these things. Built around two remarkable comedic performances, it frames romance itself as a farce that is framed by an absurd social system that any good historical romance film would defiantly rebel against. It is also hilarious.

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Starring Jean Dujardin as the caddish scalawag Capitaine Charles-Gregoire Neuville and Melanie Laurent as the brainy and frustrated Elisabeth Beaugrand, "Return of the Hero" offers a scenario that has the stereotypical prize catch for the proper ladies, Captain Neuville, to be a horrible person with no honor. Engaged to Elisabeth's doltish sister, Captain Neuville must go to war before they are married. He neglects to write to the family and so Elisabeth concocts her own falsified correspondence that paints Neuville as a larger-than-life war hero. Eventually believing he has died, Elisabeth makes it so on the homefront, her deception making him a hero in the town. And then, quite unexpectedly, he shows up.

The comedy largely comes from Neuville's fraud and the efforts by Elisabeth to cover up her scheme, but the romance turns all the cliches of previous historical versions on their head. It becomes a sparring match between two crafty culture jammers, both abhorring the system they live in. But Neuville, initially introduced as a bad role model, begins to take on a new light against the hypocrisy of the French upper class and his transgressions become revelatory to Elisabeth rather than repulsive. As smart and crafty rebels, it is soon apparent that they make a perfect couple.

But "Return of the Hero" doesn't unfold by the numbers, and even though I've spelled out a lot of the plot, it's nothing without the details, particularly the wonderful character moments throughout the film. This is a historical rom-com for those of us who know there is so much to falling in love than most movies are capable of expressing.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at


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