Nine years after writer-director Justin Kerrigan’s award-winning feature debut, Human Traffic, he’s returned with a much more gentle and personal effort in I Know You Know. Where Human Traffic brought the rave movement to the screen with electrifying realism, this instead focuses on a semi auto-biographical portrayal of the relationship between a father and a son, in tribute to Kerrigan’s own late father.
Robert Carlyle plays Charlie Callaghan, on whom the film opens as he delivers a Travis Bickle-esque assurance to his bathroom mirror that he has everything under control. Specifically, he’s on a dangerous mission against telecommunications company Astro-Sat on behalf of Her Majesty’s secret service. However, he also has to look after his young son, Jamie, played by Arron Fuller.
The audience sees the story unfold through Jamie’s eyes as he begins at a new comprehensive where bullies rule the roost. When he discovers the kind of work his dad is into, he’s captivated by the promise of a move to America, holidays to space and a £2 million payday if Charlie can finish his current mission. Certainly he’s more intrigued by the danger in Charlie’s life than in a pedestrian existence living with his doting Aunt Lilly and Uncle Ernie.
As the mission spirals out of control, Jamie is placed in personal jeopardy by Charlie’s work and his claims that Astro-Sat are planning to put a satellite on every home in Britain, in the hope of controlling the minds of her people, may not be as dangerous as his own unravelling psyche. Jamie is forced to grow up in short order as not all is as it seems.
As in many films like this, the parental dynamic between actors is crucial to I Know You Know. Carlyle bristles with barely concealed intensity throughout, and is still poised enough to sell the idea that he’s a secret agent, if an unconventional one. The traditional Aston Martin gadget-packed car is traded in for a battered motor with an uneven red, white, and blue paintjob, and Carlyle sports a moustache and sunglasses. It’s a joy to see him starring in films like this instead of the likes of Eragon.
The real revelation here is Arron Fuller, whose Jamie is energetic and relatable from the off. In his debut performance, Fuller matches Carlyle admirably as a viewpoint on the more mercurial and unstable character of Charlie. As a stand-in for the young Kerrigan, he hero-worships his father, and as the film progresses, he’s the one who reflects much of the film’s central conceit: that all kids eventually realise their father isn’t some perfect superhero archetype.
Oddly, there are parallels in I Know You Know‘s central relationship with the dynamic between Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass, also in cinemas at the moment. Charlie treats Jimmy as an equal rather than giving him what he needs from a father, and although Kick-Ass will indubitably be more widely seen, this film explores that kind of parenting in a little more depth, thanks to a twist midway through that gives context and weight to what Charlie’s up to.
Worthy of mention elsewhere in the supporting cast are Karl Johnson and David Bradley, who previously starred together as incoherent small-towners in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. Here they’re both a lot more articulate, with the always excellent Bradley playing Mr. Skinner and Johnson giving a nuanced and tender performance as Uncle Ernie. While Skinner enables Charlie’s lifestyle by giving him missions and direction, Ernie’s trying to salvage the entranced Jamie’s school career.
The film is set in 1980s Wales, and Jamie’s suburban surroundings are shot with a slightly vanilla tinge to effectively emphasise how exciting the placement of a spy in that environment is to a young boy. Kerrigan also deploys some terrific camera work to escalate the paranoia around the Astro-Sat vans and Charlie’s mission in the latter stages of the film. Meanwhile, Guy Farley’s rather excellent score evokes Harold Faltermeyer, Isaac Hayes and Bill Conti, by turns. All of which lends the film an appreciable air of espionage as well as foregrounding the working class populace.
With some powerful performances and a charming but bittersweet script, I Know You Know is a drama that is well worth seeking out. It puts an espionage plot into the context of a coming-of-age tale and it exceeded my expectations by a long way.
It seems almost a cathartic act for Kerrigan in more ways than one. Human Traffic‘s path to the screen took a lot out of him and left him in debt, but he has also professed his return to film as his way of dealing with the death of his father, to whom the film is dedicated. The result is a capable and well made drama that will amuse and tug at the heartstrings in equal measure.
I Know You Know is out now in UK cinemas.