The Beautiful Game (2024)

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The Beautiful Game (2024)

In the film “The Beautiful Game,” a collection of well-known life-as-sport metaphors is given a good run around. It tells the story of underdogs for whom winning may not be everything, but it’s certainly a welcome reprieve from more pressing problems. This is probably an introduction to many viewers of Thea Sharrock‘s sunny Netflix entertainment and the real-life event on which it’s based: the Homeless World Cup, an annual soccer tournament that sees almost 50 nations field teams of displaced or dispossessed players playing not just for a trophy but for another shot at existence. As a premise for an inspirational sports drama goes, that’s hard to beat, and no amount of rote writing in Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s patchy script can undercut the film’s lumpy-throat efficacy.

Though inspired by various tales from different Homeless World Cup players, the film eventually focuses on one team England, naturally from among the event’s international tapestry, and leans on a couple of stock sports-drama figures. Bill Nighy is the impassioned coach who never says die while his charges wane in spirit; Micheal Ward is the gifted hothead yet to appreciate the value of team spirit. Other individuals a recovering addict playing for personal redemption; a determined young woman dreaming of big-league glory; a wily South African coach who blags his way through the contest on wit alone providing incident in what, at over two hours duration, is somewhat overlong fare, though characterization never runs deep enough to compromise the film’s feelgood messaging. For most participants this is a respite from harsher realities; “The Beautiful Game” portrays it as such, from its broadness of culture-clash comedy to Mike Eley’s high-summer lensing.

An opening blast of stadium crowd noise and rapid-fire match commentary quickly shrinks to become Vinny’s (Ward) voiceover, as a quicksilver young man gatecrashes a kids’ soccer game in an East London park. As disgruntled parents complain about his goal-scoring intrusion, seasoned coach Mal (Nighy) looks on approvingly: He knows a striker when he sees one, even on the entirely wrong pitch. A former West Ham United kingmaker of mythic status, he has turned his attention to assembling England’s Homeless World Cup team — a motley crew of hard-luck stories with plenty of heart, but nothing like Vinny’s untutored talent.

An unemployable loner who has been dossing in his car since a divorce left him homeless, Vinny is not initially receptive to Mal’s recruitment drive though the promise of an all-expenses-paid trip to sunny Rome in several weeks eventually thaws his frosty reluctance. The newcomer’s fancy footwork may give England more of a chance than they had before, but the team is slow to bond: There’s instant friction between Vinny and demoted striker Cal (Kit Young), while plucky, sensitive ex-junkie Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), eager for friendship, spirals into self-loathing after Vinny snootily rebuffs him. Luck goes their way in the early rounds too: South Africa is unable to arrive at the tournament promptly due to passport issues, granting them a bye into the quarter-finals; there’s no prize for guessing that sportsmanship will triumph over sportsmanship in the final showdown.

Cottrell-Boyce’s script is so packed with subplots and topical issues it can’t possibly do justice to them all. Nathan’s struggles with addiction provide a fairly affecting through the line, but the rest of the team — including Syrian asylum seeker Aldar (Robin Nazari) and would-be ladies’ man Jason (Sheyi Cole), who gets a sharp #MeToo education after inappropriately coming on to sparky Mexican-American player Rosita (Cristina Rodio) are short-changed in the extreme. Susan Wokoma supplies amiable comic relief as South Africa’s bolshy nun-turned-coach, the woes of the hopeless Japanese team and its dourly militaristic coach feel like a less successful diversion, weighted down by some outdated stereotyping.

Vinny’s frequent sullen departures from his teammates in favor of sulking elsewhere get maybe one cycle too many. However, if “The Beautiful Game” occasionally overworks its narrative devices, it can hardly be blamed for lavishing attention on Ward. Even in relatively slight material, his volatile charisma quickens and complicates characters. At the same time, his darting screen energy complements Nighy’s laid-back roguishness nicely. (He also has twinkly chemistry with an underused Valeria Golino as the Italian tournament coordinator, though any hint of romance between them is strictly kept on a simmer.)

You can practically hear the film shifting gears into formulaic rousing mode at times, but resistance is futile when a story as shamelessly heartstring-tugging as this one has real-life roots that are even more shameless still. Coming off “Wicked Little Letters,” Sharrock directs in no-nonsense audience-pleasing mode throughout, dialing up emotional machinery exactly when required: If you don’t find yourself moist-eyed during Franklin’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cover playing over a final-match montage here, then “The Beautiful Game” was never aimed at you in the first place, pal.

Also On Putlocker.

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