Brother to brother

Good intentions undermine Mark Haddon's tale of sibling rivalry

<strong>Coming Down the Mountain<

If I wrote a novel - this is just a wild fantasy, you understand - and, after it was published, a reviewer described it as having "its heart in the right place", I would crack open my cyanide ring right there on the spot.

So when I describe the writer Mark Haddon's Coming Down the Mountain (2 September, 9pm) as having its heart in the right place, I know exactly what it sounds like - such a feeble bat-squeak of approval! - and I wish I could do better. His script was, in places, brilliant and true, and the performances all entirely captivating. But, in the end, the film's good intentions crippled the drama to such a degree that I almost gave up on it. David (Nicholas Hoult) was violently resentful of his brother, Ben (Tommy Jessop), who had Down's syndrome. "Last summer, I decided to kill my brother," he told us, in the film's opening line. I'm an easy lay drama-wise, so I was gripped by this. Forty minutes in, however, I could already picture the film's ending. Against blue skies and floaty clouds, love would prevail. David would realise that difference was enriching rather than isolating. He and Ben would be best buddies. Hooray!

To be fair, Haddon was in a bind. Only a monster - or one bent on career suicide - would set out to write a BBC drama featuring a character with Down's that was anything other than touching. But this meant that certain elements of his plot did seem a bit melodramatic, given that, in the end, they were only going to lead us to a metaphorical group hug and a few shared brotherly jokes about girls. David was already heartily sick of Ben before his parents decided to move them from London to Matlock so Ben could attend a special school, and his moods, in this early part of the film, were totally believable; there was a magisterially embarrassing scene (for David, I mean) when, after he'd dumped Ben rather than walk him home, his furious mother came to winkle him out from a party at which he'd just snogged the school hottie, Gail (played with ripe nonchalance by Emer Kenny). Once they'd headed up the M1, however, and Gail had dumped him and the boys at his new school had started calling him gay, David turned, overnight, from testosteronic mardy bum into your basic psycho.

First, there was a scene in which he sat in one of those mechanical children's rides you find outside supermarkets and sobbed his eyes out. It's pushing it, I think, to imagine that an angst-ridden boy bent on avoiding social embarrassment would choose to have his emotional breakdown in a kiddie ride in the first place. But if I add that this particular machine was also in motion - it rocked nauseatingly like a cradle - you will grasp just how strangely outlandish it was.

Then David took Ben off to Snowdonia. Uh oh. David was bright and funny; it seemed unlikely in the extreme that he would alight on such a murderous plan as this - he was going to shove Ben off a mountain, in the manner of one of Patricia Highsmith's more loony anti-heroes - and with all the forethought of a toddler approaching a boiling pan. At the last minute, he almost bottled it (and, strictly on grounds of dramatic decency, I was praying that he would), but then Ben sealed his own fate by saying: "I'm really happy and you're depressed and that's why Mum and Dad like me more than you." This was a brilliant line: it dances beautifully on a tired cliché, yet by putting it into the mouth of an actor with Down's syndrome, Haddon also gave it shocking new import. But it seemed cheap to use it to turn the action like this - and unnecessary given that, pre-Matlock, Haddon's script had been word-, and feeling-, perfect. He can take you inside the minds of young people as very few writers can, so why, in this instance, the weird excesses of plot? I just can't account for them.

Oh, well. The good news is that Nicholas Hoult is an even better actor than previously suspected. Were it not for his performance - so knowing and so charming - I would have left the brothers on their black mountain and gone off to make myself some toast.

Pick of the week

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Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other