The past looms up in Lilting, a deft minor-key British drama from director Hong Khaou. It’s all around us in the sheltered accommodation that provides the setting, exquisitely done out 1950s-style to remind the residents of former lives. Among them is Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), a Chinese widow for whom England and its language have always been a mystery, and whose son Kai has recently died. The loss pares her away – though her sorrow is relieved by a Casanova in slacks (Peter Bowles). They kiss in lieu of common language. Enter Richard (Ben Whishaw), the friend of Kai she never liked – really, though she didn’t know, his boyfriend. Would she and her beau, he asks, like a translator?
At its sweetest and neatest, all this suggests a Hollywood group-hug remade by Londoners of good taste and low budget. Yet Khaou is honest as well as elegant, and the film rarely cloys. Cheng employs a medley of sadnesses – mournful, wounded, defensive – as well as a wide grin, while Whishaw quietly vibrates with grief, desperate to be decent. Lilting can feel like an airtight glass box, but the figures inside it are vividly alive.