Many are the films looking at love at the beginning of two young, upwardly-mobile strangers’ lives. All throughout the years, whether by Howard Hawks or Nancy Meyers or Marc Lawrence, they’re all about the discovery of not only themselves as people, but who they can be as a couple. Much like Meyers’ own Something’s Gotta Give, Paul Morrison’s 23 Walks looks at love through the lens of two older strangers who’ve already had time to figure all the cute stuff out, strangers who’ve lost their one true love and now find themselves in a position to be a companion to each other.
It’s an interesting viewpoint, to see a relationship form between two people without the trappings of “so… what do you do?” or “what kind of car do you drive?” getting-to-know you kind of talk. This is Dave (Dave Johns) and Fern (Alison Steadman) running into each other while walking their dogs and sparking up a friendship. Of course, there are the “what did you do back then?” kinds of discussions, but they take more of a backseat to these two forging ahead as two lost souls looking for an anchor over the span of the titular twenty-three walks. But there’s someone in Dave’s past that’s keeping them from truly being together, and it’s not a hurdle easy to overcome.
The chemistry between Dave Johns and Alison Steadman is why we’re here, as they both carry this film through its predictable paces with charm and eagerness. Written as two people who know there are a hell of a lot fewer years ahead than those behind, Dave and Fern don’t have time for the games. Even though Dave must play a little bit of a game to keep Fern from knowing the truth about the secret keeping them apart and his financial situation (he’s behind on his rent and about to lose his council estate), for the most part, these are two honest dog-owners who just want to hang out and have fun.
Writer/director Paul Morrison frames his story more from Dave’s side, keeping Fern as the object of pursuit. Johns plays Dave as a historied man with a new hope in his life, and he’s willing to do anything to keep that hope around. He gives Dave a weary playfulness, but it’s a playfulness that feels like it’s been earned over a lifetime of service (he’s a retired nurse) and a little bit of a loosening of the collar, like he’s free to be himself. Opposite him, Steadman is an absolute delight, recovering lost bits of herself after two marriages and enjoying the prospect of opening herself back up again to someone new.
Two people with a ton of history at their backs meeting each other over a series of dog-walks – the first of them being antagonistic, as Fern believes that Dave should have his larger dog on a leash – is as meet-cute as meet-cutes get, but it leads to the many personal moments that give 23 Walks its soul. Morrison’s story treads familiar ground, but it’s Dave Johns and Alison Steadman who give it the lift it needs to endear itself to us. They elevate the script beyond the formulaic and into being the reason for winking grins and mirth. Johns’ giddiness and Steadman’s rock-solid assuredness give us something to latch onto and enjoy for every second they’re on screen.