As UK cinemas prepare for the release of Paddy Considine’s new feature Journeyman, it’s a good time to think about the genre that Considine is working in: the boxing film. Asked to list some of the genre’s characteristics, the average movie-goer might say: a working-class setting, predictable rise and fall, lots of triumphalism, and something else … Americans. In spite of the sport’s Anglo-American genesis and its still immense popularity in the UK, few British films about the fight game – compared with the heft of Rocky or Raging Bull or Creed or Million Dollar Baby – have ever made a big dent, either at the box office or in the public consciousness.
Considine’s second film as director in fact turns away from the expectations of genre. His is a humane and realistic depiction of a fighter battling a brain injury. It eschews rags-to-riches tales, heroic comebacks or greedy mob fixers, and focuses simply on a wealthy professional athlete facing a heartbreaking situation. And beyond the film’s unexpected treatment of familiar sports terrain, there’s something else about Journeyman that’s nice: it’s homegrown.
There is a small sub-section of British film-makers who have shown a fascination with the sport, particularly vis-a-vis its connections to class, poverty and social realism. Among those ranks are Considine’s friend and collaborator Shane Meadows, whose debut 1997 feature about an amateur boxing gym, TwentyFour Seven, was nominated for best British film at the Baftas the following year, and actor-screenwriter Johnny Harris, who worked with Meadows on the TV series This Is England ’86 and its follow-ups.
Speaking to the Guardian about his film Jawbone last year, Harris said: “I just wanted to make a really good British boxing movie.” Harris managed to do precisely that; it balances a terse realism with saleable performances from tough-guy stars such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane. Jawbone was released to critical fanfare, but sadly little box office success.
Jezz Vernon, distributor of several hit direct-to-DVD films such as The Guvnors (2014), and executive producer of forthcoming boxing films of the same kind (Ten Count, Requiem for a Fighter), points out that Jawbone’s lack of takings did not bode well for the future of the Brit boxing flick. “There was a lot of pressure on Jawbone to prove that a well-acted, well-executed film could cut through. But it struggled to get screens and delivered pretty minimal commercial results. Exhibitors, platforms and retailers struggle to find a reason to break new ground or revisit a genre where previous efforts have failed or been few and far between. Margins and audiences are just too slender and fragmented, so there isn’t the financial cushion to allow experimentation without big names.”
Given Journeyman’s quality, considering the British boxing film’s legacy – or lack thereof – is baffling. In the 1930s, a handful of crime films delved into the world of prizefighting. Few, if any, live on in the public memory, but 1939 Ealing Studios production There Ain’t No Justice – adapted from a James Curtis novel – is a rare gem. Fresh-faced star Jimmy Hanley, whose career had been cultivated by Rank Studios since childhood, plays an up and coming fighter who doesn’t realise he’s caught up in a syndicate’s gambling racket. Boxing remained an incidental – if frequent – ingredient of the low-budget underworld films in the postwar period and up to the early 60s, featuring spivs, gangsters and fight-fixers. Ealing Studios producer Michael Balcon, who had produced There Ain’t No Justice, tried again with the The Square Ring (1955), but the reviews were not encouraging.
More recent films such as The Boxer (1997) and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) have seen commercial and critical success, with audiences primed to appreciate performances from bigger stars. Daniel Day-Lewis and Brad Pitt both committed deeply to their roles as born fighters in each film, different though they are in tone and background. In fact, Snatch focuses only peripherally on bare-knuckle boxing among Traveller communities, making it a boxing film in only the loosest sense. Still, Pitt’s dedication to depicting a bare-knuckle fighter saw him spending months with Irish Traveller families. Day-Lewis, for his part, took lessons from former champ Barry McGuigan until he was good enough to fight professionally. Veracity continues to be an important element of many boxing films, and Considine follows this through line – Journeyman features a host of real-life British boxing commentators, cornermen, and hangers-on.
On the face of it, the rising stardom of real homegrown heavyweight champs such as Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua – the latter’s fight with Wladimir Klitschko smashed Sky Box Office records – doesn’t seem to have helped. It may be too soon to hope that the recent surge in British talent will encourage film-makers to find uniquely British stories set in the boxing world. Vernon points out: “There have been some successful larger-scale releases for US boxing films. These tend to feature either a larger than life character (Ali, Raging Bull, The Fighter) or a star-led vehicle (Rocky, Creed). We haven’t had a recent breakthrough British boxing film – maybe ever.”
While a handful of modest releases can hardly be called a comeback, it’s in keeping with the spirit of the boxing film to remain hopeful of some sort of redemption. In the meantime, boxing fans should be keeping a close eye on how Journeyman fares at the UK box office. That should give some indication of where this dogged little national sub-genre is going.
•Journeyman is released on 30 March.