By Peg Aloi
Boiling Point is as suspenseful a film as anything else I’ve seen this year.
Boiling Point, directed by Philip Barantini. Streaming on AppleTV and Amazon Prime.
We may not be going to restaurants as much as we’d like these days, and the industry has certainly taken a beating during the pandemic. But in this intense, single-shot film we are taken deep inside the frantic and intricate workings of an East London high-end dining establishment. There’s a timely reminder here that the best restaurants pride themselves on making delicious food and graceful service seem effortless, creating an experience to be savored. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen took us deep into the underbelly of restaurant life, showing us the toil beneath the magic, the stress behind the smiles.
Perhaps the celebrity chef media oeuvre went too far in demystifying what should have remained an occult phenomenon. The truth is, there’s no substitute for the experience of having a meal at a fine restaurant: the bustle, the glamour, the sensory indulgence, the unexpected chemistry of other diners in our vicinity. This engaging, energetic film by Philip Barantini (Villain), expanded from a 20-minute short, captures that mystical experience by revealing its most gritty working parts, and the driven people who work together to create these experiences, night after night, despite overwhelming stress and occasional disaster. Boiling Point is as suspenseful a film as anything else I’ve seen this year.
On the evening of what will be an extremely busy night during the Christmas season, head chef Andy Jones (veteran actor Stephen Graham of Taboo, Boardwalk Empire) is heading to work, arguing on the phone with his estranged wife about having missed an event with his son. He’s apologetic and frazzled. He looks exhausted and distracted. The camera follows him just as it will follow everyone in his orbit for the next 90 minutes. A health inspector informs him the restaurant’s rating is being reduced until various infractions are addressed; Andy (who may be based on real life chef Andy Jones, co-owner of Jones & Sons, where filming is taking place) blows up at kitchen staff about the health issues, including one French prep chef who’s only been working there for a week.
Andy’s next in command, sous chef Carly (Sherlock’s Vinette Robinson) and roast chef Freeman (Marcella’s Ray Panthaki) hold things together, Carly by smoothing over Andy’s frequent outbursts, Freeman by not telling Andy what he really thinks. But, as the title suggests, things steam to a head as the evening’s high stakes and random events coalesce and escalate in intensity. From dishwashers to hostesses, every employee seems to be aware of Andy’s tinderbox temper, even though they respond positively to his apologies and humor. We learn Andy’s got a lot on his plate; he just moved into a new place (driven by his marriage woes no doubt), the restaurant has financial troubles, and he’s struggling to remain sober. Compounding the turmoil: Carly and Freeman, the senior staffers closest to him, are increasingly fed up with his erratic and irresponsible behavior, and that trickles down and impacts every aspect of the restaurant experience, which of course begins in the kitchen.
Refreshingly, far from focusing on Andy alone, the Boiling Point provides just enough information about other characters to make this frenetic cinema verité rich with intrigue and emotion. There’s Alastair Skye (Jamestown’s Jason Flemyng), himself a celebrity chef and would-be investor in Andy’s restaurant. Driven by his oversized ego, he brings a prominent food critic (Lourdes Faberes) to dine with him. There’s the waitstaff, doing their best to remain polite while fending off sexist and racist behavior from uncouth guests who want to be seen dining at this popular hot spot where reservations are hard to get. There’s the hostess and the restaurant’s social media maven Beth (Save Me’s Alice Feetham), whose efforts to please some tacky social media influencers end up making unreasonable demands that generate chaos in the kitchen. There’s the hardworking pastry chef whose talented young assistant struggles with anxiety and self-harm. And there are crucial but underappreciated workers — dishwashers and prep cooks — whose fascinating stories are integral to the drama. Boiling Point suggests that working in a high end restaurant is attractive to high-achieving but flawed people who thrive amid the chaos, perhaps are even drawn to it as a sort of addiction.
The film is so attentive to detail that it often feels that we are watching a documentary set in a working restaurant. The actors are perfectly convincing at their tasks, and at moving through a highly charged, crowded space; we get to glimpse fascinating snippets of character drama. There’s a feeling of being backstage at a theatrical performance, but without a competent stage manager running things. When a careless mistake endangers a customer’s life, the escalating tension finally explodes: everyone struggles to continue maintaining a dance of effortless service amid a celebratory atmosphere. It all comes crashing down on Andy, and Graham’s understated detonation is stunning to behold. Boiling Point is a compelling dramatic pressure cooker that chronicles the roiling turmoil beneath an experience many of us take for granted.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.