Saturday, May 13, 2017

Jawbone: a life on the ropes in a knockout film (QFT until 18 May)

Films sneak up and surprise you. There was a recent spate of films about jazz, a musical genre that turns out to be dark and moody and thus perfectly pitched to accompany the theatrical lives of key players over the years.

Jawbone is another such film. Men taking lumps out of each other while boxing for sport is not normally appealing to this reviewer. But Johnny Harris first screenplay, directed by Thomas Napper, delivers an intelligent and nuanced story as well as some tense fight scenes choreographed by the Clones Cyclone, Barry McGuigan.

While it starts off in a benefits office that cannot help but trigger memories of I, Daniel Blake. Jimmy McCabe (played by the film’s writer Johnny Harris) is not just fighting eviction from his home but is also up against the ropes fighting his demons and addictions.

A south London boxing club owner Bill (Ray Winstone) lays down the law when the prodigal son returns to train: no booze, no unlicensed fighting, no messing around. But Eddie, the boxing coach with an Irish lilt Eddie played by Michael Smiley, is less convinced by Jimmy’s comeback. This second chance calls the once rated fighter’s ability into question. But Jimmy needs money urgently and an unlicensed bid seems to be his only option.

Fitness, death, concentration and passion play out over 91 minutes along with a tense triangle of love, loyalty and trust between Bill, Eddie and Jimmy. This is an almost exclusively male film.

Much of the film is shot outside at night or in gloomy conditions, with atmospheric silhouettes throughout that benefit from a really dark cinema. Even when the action – somewhat inevitably – returns to the boxing ring, the brilliantly lit stage is surrounded by the baying crowd in darkness.

Paul Weller’s soundtrack of deep metallic strings emphasises the turmoil and distress. Such a great change from plinkity piano muzak. The camera allows the cinema audience to stare into the soul of Jimmy through his eyes. And in case they haven’t noticed, a line of dialogue helpfully reminds anyone not paying attention:
“Look at your man: when you look in his eye you see all of him”

The fight scenes are not allowed to dominate the film, but final bout was hard to watch and felt very much like a fight to the death. The make up and prosthetics illustrate why boxing is referred to as a blood sport.

Drink and boxing: if one doesn’t kill the other may, and Jimmy finds both difficult to give up. Harris, Winstone and Smiley are superb, balancing the emotional tension whilst teasing out the protagonist’s fight against addiction.

The ending is beautiful and has enough soul to irrigate your tear ducts. Jawbone is a story well told. It evenly matches great visuals, good sound, interesting characters and just enough sentiment to craft a tale of the unexpected.

Jawbone is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 18 May.

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