Buried tragedy … Leanne Best and Timothy Spall in Bola’s Shoes

Buried tragedy … Leanne Best and Timothy Spall in Bola’s Shoes

Action Designer: Dan DJ Johnson

Bolan’s Shoes review - Timothy Spall and Leanne Best add class to trauma drama

Separated siblings, bullied children, horrible accidents and Marc Bolan’s death are only some of the tragedies here, but strong performances keep the horrors watchable

This Wales, Liverpool and London-set drama is a proper melodrama any way you slice it, but one with strong enough performances and sufficiently good dialogue to keep it from feeling tacky. The first chunk of expository scene-setting shuttles back and forth between the 1970s and the present day, establishing a sunny comic tone that’s suddenly pierced by tragedy. In the 70s, a coachload of kids from a children’s home are travelling to see their favourite band, T Rex, chaperoned by the home’s vicar (Andrew Lancel) and cheery carer Simon (Louis Emerick, forever lovable Mick from Brookside). The vicar’s daughter Penny (Eden Beach), about 10 years old, is close with home-resident Sadie (Amelia Rose Smith) and Sadie’s shy older brother Jimmy (Isaac Lancel-Watkinson), who is bullied by the older boys. The coach ends up crashing, killing several people. Meanwhile, in the present, adult Penny (Leanne Best, so good you wonder why she’s not had more leading roles instead of support turns) is now married to local vicar Geraint (Mark Lewis Jones) and is excitedly preparing to make her annual pilgrimage from Anglesey to London to pay respects at the grave of T Rex’s lead singer, Marc Bolan, whom the kids all met back in the 1970s timeline.

However, at the graveside where many T Rex fans have gathered, Penny notices a withdrawn man (Timothy Spall, for it is he) with long hair and a huge beard, blowing massive bubbles for entertainment. He has an epileptic fit; of course, it transpires that this is Jimmy, who years earlier was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and these days lives in a ramshackle mobile home in the woods. He hasn’t been in a good way ever since the aforementioned tragedy back in the 1970s. Once he and Penny are reunited, all that walled-up pain, guilt and shame comes out in a flood of long-kept secrets, most of them revealed in a long, movingly delivered monologue from Penny. So persuasive is Best’s performance that you almost don’t notice writer-director Ian Puleston-Davies stacks the revelation of yet another tragic horror atop the pile – as if separated siblings, secret identities, bullied children in care, horrible accidents and Bolan’s death weren’t enough.

The happy-ish ending doesn’t feel entirely persuasive but it’s just about forgivable, and Spall is every bit as good as Best in a role that many other actors might have hammed up with broader gestures and mannerisms. Instead, Spall keeps the performance tight, projecting not just Jimmy’s damaged psyche but also his wit. You can’t help but chuckle when he mentions he spent a lot of time in Bristol: “Lovely city, shame about the slavery.”

Leslie Felperin (2023) Bolan’s Shoes review - Timothy Spall and Leanne Best add class to trauma drama. The Guardian