Ever since he was a boy, Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) wanted to be clever, but just as some people are born beautiful, some people are born with intelligence and Brian does not believe he is one of those. He has to work at his brainpower, and as a result has become a receptacle for a host of facts and figures that might not come in handy in day to day life, but is perfect if you're watching an episode of University Challenge. And now Brian, a working class boy from Essex, is going to Bristol University, he has the chance to appear on the quiz show for real...
The first thing Starter for 10 does right is play the original version of the theme tune, and not the strings-based lesser rendition that heralded the series' later return after a hiatus. Initially there's the sense that this will go consistently for the obvious, with a string of eighties hits on the soundtrack for pushing those most uncomplicated of nostalgia buttons, and later on we appear to be in traditional romantic comedy mode as well as Brian finds himself torn between two potential girlfriends, with the right girl plain for everybody to see except him.
But then, amidst some easygoing humour and heartbreak clichés, a new theme emerges as Brian becomes a hero to everyone who has ever made mistakes in their life that will haunt them to the end of their days. In McAvoy's engaging, fresh-faced performance he takes on an almost noble cast, an everyday fool who we can see has to challenge his low self-esteem and be a better man because of it. This might be talking up the film too highly, but while there are a few scattered laughs, it's this inspirational nature that really helps the film float.
Those two women Brian meets at university are the glamorous and rich Alice (Alice Eve), and the wry, socially conscious intellectual Rebecca (scene-stealing Rebecca Hall - were these actresses cast due to them having the same names as their characters, we wonder?). It doesn't take Einstein to work out that Rebecca is far better suited to our hero than the way out of his league Alice, but it's Alice who Brian elects to pursue after meeting her at the auditions for University Challenge. He sneaks her the answers that get her on the team, but leave him in reserve, proof that their relationship will be somewhat one-sided.
So Brian takes Alice out to dinner, and breaks down in tears when talking about his late father which she thinks is very sweet, so much so that she invites him over to spend New Year's Eve with her at her parents' holiday cottage. As embarrassment is a major component of the humour here, I don't need to tell you how it turns out, but Brian proceeds to blow his chances with Rebecca too. He is one of those characters who many will want to reach in to the screen simply to give him a good shake, especially when a nicely recreated University Challenge episode (with Mark Gatiss an inspired choice as Bamber Gascoigne even if he doesn't get the voice quite right) proves both his making and undoing. If this modest but endearing film winds up predictably after that, at least it has taught us that failure is part of life and something to be met head on; whether you'll be invigorated by this or not is another matter. Music by Blake Neely.