Mediocre pay. Angry parents. A lack of fundamental support on every level. Teachers put up with a lot for the sake of educating and inspiring children to pursue their goals and make the most of life.
Most teachers, that is.
Nick Cutler, the egomaniacal hero of director Heath Davis’s new film Book Week, is not one of them. Picture Robin Williams’ iconic character in Dead Poets Society. Now, imagine the exact opposite. There you have Cutler, an English teacher and basketball coach jaded by a lifelong struggle to become a successful writer.
When he’s not sarcastic towards his colleagues and students, he’s outright barbaric. Chastising one student for referring to Shakespeare as a writer of books instead of plays, and another for simply wanting his approval, he’s a darkly funny satire of an educator at wit’s end.
He’s not just like that in the classroom though. Everyone in Cutler’s personal life dislikes him almost as much as his fellow teachers, to the point where his girlfriend asks him to “promise me that you won’t make any more promises” in order to spare herself the emotional torment.
Cutler doesn’t mind though. After eight years in exile following an explosive press tour, he’s finally in a position to return to the literary world with the publication of his new novel. Everyone thinks it’s going to be a hit – the writer himself, in particular – so as long as Cutler can curb his cruel streak, the success he’s always wanted will finally be his.
In the lead role, Alan Dukes delivers a fantastic performance. Even when it seems as if the last fragment of likeability has left Cutler’s character, Dukes finds a way to keep the audience laughing. The same can be said of his co-stars, including Airlie Dodds, whose charming but hopelessly reckless Sarah proves one of the few people to accept Cutler despite his flaws, and Susan Prior’s Lee, Cutler’s boss and lover. An enjoyable supporting cast keeps the mood light, and the school feeling alive.
Book Week‘s premise is a solid one, but by spending so much time off school grounds, the film starts to wear thin as the second act comes to a close. Cutler is just too willing to demonstrate what a jerk he can be to everyone he comes into contact with, despite knowing that his aspirations rest solely on his ability to stay out of trouble. Davis has a chance to inject some tension and comedy into the story by showing how hard it is for teachers to remain professional despite the daily challenges that come their way, but he doesn’t take it. It’s a shame, especially considering his history as a teacher means he’s more aware of these challenges than most directors would be.
Technical issues in the third act – particularly when it comes to sound design – don’t help, though hopefully they will be fixed before the film hits cinemas on November 7th.
Despite these problems, Book Week does have its charms. If the concept appeals to you, the strong performances, and a range of genuinely funny moments will leave you entertained.
Book Week releases in Australian cinemas on November 7th.