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Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Daniel Graham
scr Matt Hookings
prd Matt Hookings, Chris Hardman
with Matt Hookings, Ray Winstone, Russell Crowe, Marton Csokas, Jodhi May, Julian Glover, Steven Berkoff, Ricky Chaplin, Lucy Martin, Stanley Morgan, Olivia Chenery, Spike Howells
release US/UK 22.Jun.22
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Bristling with earthy grit, this period drama traces the origins of boxing as a sport at the turn of the 19th century. It was far more brutal then, even as they began using gloves. The filmmaking is florid and over-serious, which allows director Daniel Graham to sidestep bigger themes that might have made its story resonant. But the characters and their inter-connections are strong enough to hold the interest.
Growing up in late 1700s Bristol, the small and badly bullied Jem (Howells) watches with admiration as his hard-drinking granddad Jack (Crowe) takes on opponents bare-knuckle in fields. Jem's widowed mother Mary (May) severely disapproves. Then a decade later Jem (now Hookings) spontaneously demonstrates his natural skill in a carnival match and is taken on by veteran trainer Bill (Winstone). By 1800, he's impressing London society, living the high life and taking on the middleweight champ to win the title. Of course, fame and fortune bring ups and downs, including problems with injury and alcohol.
Graham and writer-actor Hookings recount this story with heightened atmosphere, using vivid settings that are deliberately grubby and underlit, while encouraging the cast to go for engaging scene-chewing performances, complete with viscerally grisly flight choreography. The usual themes emerge as Jem is propelled into the upper crust, mixing with members of the nobility who might be more dangerous than his opponents in the ring. These include the preening showman Lord Rushworth (Csokas), who helps build up his public persona before moving on to new blood.
Hookings looks terrific in the role, with his natural athleticism and charismatic personality. He exudes determination each time Jem has to prove himself. Winstone and Crowe offer gravel-voiced performances as salt-of-the-earth men who call it as they see it, take no nonsense, and so on. They also cleverly find warmth in otherwise aggressive relationships with Jem. By contrast, May has little to do but look pious and/or wounded, but she still registers strongly. And a bit more texture would have been welcome involving Martin and Morgan as Jem's supportive siblings.
While the script plays loosely with the facts of Jem's life, there are plenty of intriguing topics thrown around along the way, including the idea of success fuelled by self-doubt and the legacy violent fathers pass to sons and grandsons. And Jem's journey requires him to find a lot of focus (cue another training montage), especially as he returns for a climactic comeback match that also comes with a huge swell of emotion. tt4471908
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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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