The Beautiful Game review | The Homeless World Cup heads to the movies

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Bill Nighy leads the ensemble of Netflix-set sporting underdog story The Beautiful Game: here’s our review.

Once upon a time, there was an advert for McDonald’s. This is a website neither sponsored nor endorsed by said fast food chain, and in truth, the last time I tasted their food, I felt sick. But the advert? Both really good, and a metaphor of sorts for the underdog sports movie.

The setup was around a golf shot, and the commercial went through the usual motions of building up to the key moment of the putt itself. The big variable was that in some instances of the advert, the shot at the end went in the hole, in others, it missed. You knew once the advert started, 90% of what you were going to get, and 10% of it you didn’t.

Two paragraphs to get to that single point. I’m smashing this.

the beautiful game cast
Credit: Netflix

The core foundation of most sporting underdog movies is that. We know we’re going to get a bunch of characters brought together for a tournament they have no realistic chance of winning. We know they’ll be in contention at the very end. We don’t know whether they’ll win or not. In the last year or so alone, we’ve had Champions (really good) and Next Goal Wins (decent), and, going spoiler-light, both were in the ballpark of that template.

Going equally spoiler-light, The Beautiful Game a bit different. It’s really rather good too.

Bill Nighy is the weary manager here, a man called Mal who’s taking a small England team to the Homeless World Cup in Rome. Our entry point into the story is Vinny, a clearly brilliant footballer who’s quite resistant to the idea of playing in the tournament, and not quite working out how to make the right choices as a father on top of that.

In surprisingly quick time, The Beautiful Game has Vinny and his teammates on a plane to Rome, and it’s here that Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script takes one of its many detours from what I was expecting. Given he penned both the book and film adaptation of Millions, perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I’d been thoroughly schooled by cinema that you get to the actual tournament bit in the final act, not the first one.

Just for good measure , the film throws in a particularly determined nun. You never got that in the Rocky movies.

You do get large chunks of what you’re likely expecting still, but with enough detours and bits of wrong-footing to keep it interesting. There’s also the fact that all the participants in the football competition are homeless, and the film does sometimes put its balls away to explore that a little as well.

The director here is Thea Sharrock, and she’s already been on cinema’s radar this year – in fact, just last month – for the delicately judged Wicked Little Letters. That’s an impressive comedy that walked a tight and sweary tonal tightrope.

The tone balancing is just as well handled here. Reflecting on the film, there are many more earnest, more melancholic, more celebratory and more, well, predictable paths that could have been chosen for The Beautiful Game. Sharrock continues to demonstrate her clear, keen eye for comedy – not least when the usually calm Nighy and a referee, well, ‘disagree’.  But she plays the drama straight too, without overegging it.

I think a key quality here is keeping the film as accessible as it is, and making sure that even those who may have been in the background are given their moments. That’s not just the players in the team, but also their opponents. There’s a quietly moving moment with the Japanese team, for instance, who – I’m deliberately going spoiler light – are not the best footballers at the competition.

I really like that Cottrell-Boyce’s script deepens the collection of stories surrounding the tournament itself, deftly doing so without getting bogged down. It still plays broad, but it chooses details to bother with. There’s a slight price to play: Nighy is terrific as Mal, but his character feels like the one with the broadest of broad strokes, and the shortchanges a subplot with Valeria Golino’s tournament manager.

The breakout performance though is Michael Ward as Vinny, but the broader ensemble is good value too. A special hat tip to Kit Young in the role of Cal.

I liked The Beautiful Game. Given what it is and what it’s about, it doesn’t have to stretch too hard to find its emotional beats. It’s still relatively broad, too, for better or worse. But it’s one of the better sporting underdog stories of recent times, and it’s build on important foundations.

Far more satisfying than a greasy burger, too…

The Beautiful Game is available on Netflix from 29th March.

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