Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The Keeper – complex, well-constructed, and doesn’t rely on a cheap love of football for its appeal (Movie House from 5 April)


Injured at the Western Front, near the end Second World War, Bernhard Trautmann is taken hostage and transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Lancashire. While the vindictive commander assigns the no nonsense lad to latrine duty, his goalkeeping skills impress everyone around him. When the local football team face relegation, he’s spirited out of the camp to secure their net. It’s the first of a number of introductions to new teams and less-than-appreciative fans. (It’s not a spoiler for football fans to mention that Trautmann ends up spending 15 years playing for Manchester City until his retirement, including a rather heroic FA Cup Final performance in 1956.)

While 2019 cinema screens have been littered with biopics, The Keeper is one of the best. And I say that as someone who has no love of sport and no prior knowledge of the story of Trautmann.

It’s a film that explores how those who feel they are the victors of a conflict relate to those they believe they have defeated. The theme of living with the conquered was at the heart of The Aftermath, but The Keeper is a much richer and multi-layered affair that gets a much better grasp of the issue. The film also gently asks to what extent foot-soldiers – often conscripted or forced into action – can be held accountable for individual acts of war.

John Henshaw dominates the first half of the film, playing local grocer and local football club manager Jack Friar. He’s shrewd, irascible and great fun to watch. Gary Lewis then takes over the manager of Man City (Jock Thompson) who spies a rare talent and hires him despite post-war feelings of animosity and the large Jewish community in Manchester who support his club.

David Kross plays Bernhard ‘Bert’ Trautmann, bringing to life a talented sportsman who relentlessly trains to develop at his talent, who stubbornly refuses to play by the rules of those around him, all the while bearing the trauma of battle and one haunting wartime act of omission. It’s a gripping performance combining strength with vulnerability.

At first, Friar’s daughter Margaret (Freya Mavor) can separate her admiration for the football from her dislike of the player. But we watch her mood mellow and her tolerance temper as she gets to know the hard-working German in the shop. Mavor is sparky and spirited, taking her character on a jagged yet believable journey from distrust to defence, and throwing in anger and indignation in moments of professional and personal turmoil. She’s also credited with the haunting version of Abide With Me that plays near the end.

As principals Mavor and Kross never let a scene down. But the joy of The Keeper is that you could take any five-minute sequence from it and have a beautifully shot short film with interesting characters, well-judged action, and thoughtful reflection on post-war Britain.

With a two hour run time, The Keeper packs a lot in, and director Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s exhibits tremendous skill in keeping the on-pitch scenes short and snappy, while juggling a raft of nuanced characters – among them the farting grandmother, the bullying boyfriend, the frisky friend, the playful younger daughter and an upset Rabbi – and a multi-threaded storyline. Even a later scene in a cemetery that at first seems clichéd and a little forced quickly becomes an acceptable part of the narrative.

Partly shot in Northern Ireland, The Keeper is complex, well-constructed, and doesn’t rely on a cheap love of football for its appeal. Released on Friday 5 April, you can catch it in Movie House cinemas.


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