Sunday 1 April 2018

After the bell: "Journeyman"

We haven't exactly been starved for boxing movies in recent years: off the top of my head, I could give you Creed and Southpaw and the one with Miles Teller, the excellent British entry Jawbone, and Warrior and its Bollywood redo Brothers, if we extend the ring to include mixed martial-arts. Journeyman, Paddy Considine's second film as director, is the first to bear the logo of the Wellcome Trust, which provides a clue as to what distinguishes it - it's ultimately a case study, not rock 'em-sock 'em razzle-dazzle - but also to its limitations. Considine gets his fight scenes out of the way within fifteen minutes, the better to chart their aftereffects, which present as a very different, wholly more challenging struggle. So we meet ageing champ Matty Burton (Considine himself) in the run-up to a title defence his opponent (a nicely needling Anthony Welsh) has promised will be "life-changing". It will be - and what's shocking is how quickly everything changes. One moment, Matty's wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) is putting the kettle on for a post-fight victory brew; the next, she finds her protector and provider all but out for the count as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage.

A strong first act leaves us in no doubt as to the irreversible seriousness of this situation, dispelling any suspicion Matty will eventually return to the ring; getting him functioning to any normal degree is the goal here. The parameters of the boxing movie are thus subtly altered. Instead of hitting the gym to get ripped, Matty has to undergo punishing sessions of physical and speech therapy, aiming to rebuild himself from scratch where previous movie fighters have merely built themselves up. By way of a sparring partner, he has a life partner - Emma, trying desperately to jab her man into flickering memories of the life they'd previously shared. Considine's previous directorial outing Tyrannosaur was a ferocious, even scarring experience, as anyone who survived it would surely testify. The new film is more obviously a love story, but it's a love story where the pain still sits very close to the surface: a film about watching the person you are, or the person you love, change suddenly, and beyond all recognition. Matty is another of Considine's superbly etched portraits of damaged men who seem likely to do further damage still - to others, as to themselves.

For all that, Journeyman doesn't have quite the same impact Tyrannosaur did. One problem is narrative. As the industry has only just figured out, Whittaker is such a vital presence that the film dwindles when she disappears: you cannot fault Emma for doing what she does, but we feel the hole her absence punches in Matty's life just a bit too much. Hardy Britfilm warriors like Tony Pitts (as a coach who doesn't know what to do with his charge after his injury) and Paul Popplewell (as the kind of pal we all need when down on our luck) lend individual scenes heft and grit, but the film around them starts to appear a more vulnerable proposition than it first appeared: a pretty good drama about people working through problems in isolation, with an even better one about people working through problems together frustratingly just off-camera. At ninety minutes, those layers of detail that helped make Jawbone so affecting are beyond it; it may be crucial that the Burtons visibly have money enough not to have to worry about the costs of medical treatment. Considine is utterly committed, and the film is nothing if not a consolidation of his considerable directorial talents - but the wounds incurred in this scenario seem to heal far too quickly and cleanly.

Journeyman is now playing in selected cinemas.

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