Film: Kicked into touch: Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch David Evans (15)
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The Independent Culture
Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch has made him many friends, but the success of a memoir about the splendours and miseries of being an Arsenal fan no more guarantees a worthwhile film than it guarantees a useful spin-off recipe book (Baked Beans My Way). Hornby's screenplay is less autobiographical than his book, but there's no trace of the narrative tension required for a fiction film.

There are flashbacks to the hero's apprenticeship as a football fan, but once we've got the message that, in this new context, young Paul's dad can progress from an awkward tousle of the hair to a manly shoulder pat, these passages pretty much mark time. Paul has a new all-male family, true, one that seems to be made up of the elderly and demented, the middle- aged and wistful, and the young and transported, but it's hard to get too worked up about that. It's mentioned late on in the film that Paul stopped having any time for his dad once their days as fellow fans were over, but the suggestion isn't taken up. Adult Paul (Colin Firth) has possession of the voice-over anyway, and we know we're not invited to see him in the round.

The present tense of the story is the 1989 League Championship season, which happens to have ended with a famous cliffhanger of a match. It's clearly a good idea to tie your story to an unforgettable result, but mildly perverse to expect audiences to forget that result until the crucial day in 1989 rolls round again on screen. It takes something of a diehard fan to watch matches over and over with no loss of surprise or excitement.

For the moment of victory itself, director David Evans comes up with a charming shot in slow motion of Paul (who has more or less despaired, and would rather not watch the match trickle away) hurling himself back into position in front of the television, a moment that abolishes the distance between player and spectator.

Otherwise Evans contents himself, in terms of technique, with the occasional crane-shot, the camera rising above Highbury after a special game - or an ordinary one. The crane shot is the equivalent in film language of an agnostic's prayer, something you find yourself resorting to under pressure, not because you believe in it but because it's what people do.

Some of the book's bits of direct address to the reader survive in the film as voice-overs, but most of its concerns have been reformulated to emerge from the romance between Paul and Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), who teaches at the same school. Sarah is given some good deflationary lines, even one or two outright zingers, but as a character she is scandalously underwritten.

She's a new teacher at the school, who introduces herself to class, without warmth, as Miz Hughes (not Miss or Mrs but Miz). She's big on lesson plans, small on communication skills, while Paul next door is a teacher approaching genius - passionate, lovable, profoundly in touch with the kids. Naturally she complains about the noise.

The characters are conceived as opposites, a standard romantic scenario, except that every opposition works in Paul's favour. Sarah is unspontaneous to an absurd extent, but without dignity. They don't have a first date as such, but he offers her a lift on a rainy day, she asks him in for a coffee, he asks if he can smoke and she says no. "You can stay the night, though, if you like," she says - without even adding, "I can't believe I said that." These unspontaneous feminists - gagging for it, really.

Paul, offered this intimacy, doesn't say no, but doesn't have to take responsibility for the relationship that results. Sarah is baffled by his football obsession, but there's nothing in her life that correspondingly excludes him. Eventually she goes with Paul to see Arsenal play, but he doesn't have to sit through chamber music concerts for her benefit, or anything like that. He's wider than her, as well as deeper. At parents' evenings, her table is deserted, while Paul, at his, deftly fields faulty family dynamics.

Many couples with a lot more in common end up arguing about commitment as against independence. Bizarrely, Paul's trump card is to say that he knows all about commitment - hasn't he supported Arsenal for 18 years? If they don't work as a couple, it's her fault. This childish sophistry is allowed to stand, with Sarah saying nothing along the lines of: Try to learn the difference between a relationship and a history of masturbation.

When roles reverse, once again it's Paul who gets the benefit. He guesses when Sarah becomes pregnant, and immediately recasts his life to accommodate the threatened newcomer. It's Sarah who has difficulty adjusting, even to the point of starting to smoke, just when he gives up the habit. She has no history, no point of view, no family or background.

The last time there was a romantic couple of teachers on screen, it was Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces, and at least then the good teacher (the woman in that case) gave the bad one tips. When, in Fever Pitch, Sarah is given an end-of-term present by her appreciative pupils, we're as surprised as she is.

Ruth Gemmell handles the scene well, an emotional moment that is over almost before it begins as the pupils slope off, but it's clear that her talents are being Miz-Hughesed. Sarah is there to endorse Paul's obsession - the apparent immaturity that is, in fact, an acceptance of loss and mortality - undercover of critique. The irony is that any follower of British cinema is necessarily familiar with what might be called Arsenal Syndrome: the throwing away of opportunities, compulsive repetition of basic mistakes

'Fever Pitch' goes on general release tomorrow