Film: The ring of half-truth
The big picture: TwentyFourSeven
Friday 27 March 1998
Shane Meadows (15)
Should boxing be banned? Tough one. Should films about boxing be banned? Now you're talking. There's something about the sport which brings out the worst in directors: they see that vast expanse of canvas and the battered leather gloves of a skid row dreamer and they come over all punch drunk, throwing metaphors around the way a Bethnal Green flyweight throws his first, faltering blows.
If the genre can be roughly divided into Fat City and The Set-Up in the red corner versus Rocky III and Somebody Up There Likes Me in the blue, then the new British feature is neither on the ropes nor especially likely to be a contender. It's shot in soft black and white and set among young male gangs who idle away their days in the Nottingham suburbs, scrapping, taking drugs and, perhaps most disturbing of all, wearing Kappa shell-suits. Into their lives shuffles Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins), a hairy little man who decides without any apparent provocation that a boxing club is just what the young 'uns need to keep them out of trouble. "If you've never had anything to believe in," he reasons, "you'll always be poor."
When he dares the more volatile boys to knock five goals past him on the football field or else show up at his gym for coaching, their reaction isn't one you'd expect - they don't shout "Sod off, Grandad", or beat him senseless with blunt instruments. Darcy has been fortunate enough to come over all inspirational on the one poverty-stricken housing estate in Britain where violence is either absent or accidental. There's not a pathological thug among these lads. The worst thing they do is mispronounce "salmonella".
These younger characters are vaguely plausible without really seeming authentic. They are limited to one idiosyncracy per person. One boy is bullied by his dad. Another may be gay - he tickles the palm of his opponent during a game of "scissors, paper, stone". And Fag-Ash (Mat Hand) is a junkie whose potential for overdosing comes in handy when the film requires a quick fix of pathos.
But the air of triviality in their conversations is one thing that the film gets unequivocally right. As both a Midlander and an exponent of low-budget film-making, the 25-year-old director Shane Meadows clearly has the correct doses of life experience and cinematic knowledge, unlike many of his American counterparts. The dialogue which he and Paul Fraser have cooked up for their young cast prompts fond memories of the 1970 film Bronco Bullfrog, another youth-oriented, black-and-white British feature shot for less than the hairspray budget of most movies. Although the wide-boy entrepreneur Ronnie (Frank Harper) who finances Darcy's venture is an over-familiar Arthur Daley figure, there is a comic warmth generated by his combination of earthy Cockney and mechanical tabloidspeak. "When the wife left us," he tells Darcy, "I went deeper into me work, and now I wanna put my life back into some semblance of order." Later, he will comment that his son is "going off to bond with nature and all that bollocks".
The comedy in generally leans towards the quirky, but when the film is trying to make you laugh it's a lot easier to digest than when it's striving for an emotional response. The mixture of streetwise and sentimental creates a kind of romanticised realism, as in the scene showing a beleaguered wife listening as her drunken husband berates their son. The camera observes the woman's troubled face and then glides away to take in a depressing stretch of patterned wallpaper. A detail is more likely to be convincing if it isn't lingered upon - notice the dirty dinner plates in Fag-Ash's bedroom, the grooves where sauce has been mopped with a clump of bread etched into their grime.
Meadows doesn't actively romanticise his locations, though he is not immune to the temptations offered to the artist by the ring. There's a scene after the boxers have departed where the camera stays fixed on the heavy bags swinging as if disturbed by phantom fists, while another shot has a boy's face disappearing into the darkness of his tracksuit hood, like a monk seeking solace in his cowl. The film reaches its most indulgent point near the end, after the club has gone under and the fighters return to express their discontent, not through violence but with a single boxing glove soaked in lighter fluid and tossed on to the canvas. If this is a poetic episode, then its poetry is scrawled on the movie's surface like graffiti rather than woven into its fabric.
It's almost inconceivable that a director responsible for other moments of extraordinary grace and poignancy should consider a burning boxing glove or two men fighting in a rubbish skip to be suitable symbols for the demise of Darcy's dream. For most of , Meadows has managed to keep undue emotion at bay thanks to the important decision to start the film at the end, with Darcy as a down-and-out; the film is unravelled in flashback. The knowledge that Darcy will end up living in a derelict railway carriage goes some way towards undermining the story's potential for sweetness. The images, too, have a corresponding blend of earthy reality and lyrical beauty: Darcy placing his grubby paw on a glass counter where the handprint of the woman he adores is shimmering; a glorious, surreal scene in which the lads answer the call of nature during a forest trek, crouching beneath their white rain-capes so they look like futuristic garden gnomes glowing magically in the gloom.
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