‘The Beautiful Game’ review: A well-meaning but corny story of underdogs
(Credits: Netflix)

Film Reviews

‘The Beautiful Game’ review: A well-meaning but corny story of underdogs

The Beautiful Game - Thea Sharrock

Thea Sharrock’s The Beautiful Game is one of the most well-meaning, terribly written, feel-good dramas I’ve seen in a while. A tale of underdogs, sporting prodigies who couldn’t be, and once-legends making amends, this sports drama, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, is based on a true story to top it all. As anyone aware of all things that are popular in the world of streaming, fiction inspired by the mundane is the equivalent of cinematic crack. You top that off with a luminary like Bill Nighy, and some wouldn’t even care how corny the resulting fare happens to be.

The debate over high vs lowbrow art will rage on as long as self-proclaimed cinephiles refuse to acknowledge their un-ironic love for the mainstream. There is no sin in enjoying the occasional pedestrian offerings over popcorn and soda in the delightful darkness of your own home or packed movie theatres. But The Beautiful Game may not inspire you to argue in its favour too hard. It is your standard popcorn flick. It’s not quite as bad as an Irish Wish, but it’s not great either.

Just days ahead of the Homeless World Cup, Nighy’s Mal is keen to recruit Vinny, an extra player for his team. Mal has been coaching the English team heading to the Homeless World Cup, which is happening in Rome. So, off they fly along with the rest of the team to sunny Italy. They are joined in their few days of fun by teams from all across the world—all with their own hopes and dreams. 

In addition to Nighy, who portrays a former scout-turned-coach, the film also stars Top Boy actor Michael Ward, Susan Wokoma, Kit Young, and Valeria Golino, among others. The story introduces us to Ward’s Vinny in the middle of a park, enjoying a kid’s football game. He is seen cheerfully commentating on the game for no one but his own amusement. When the ball rolls over to Vinny, he starts dribbling away in merriment instead of returning it. Things threaten to escalate when one of the parents calls him out for scaring the children—you are clearly supposed to side with Vinny here instead of the concerned, albeit seemingly self-centred, parent. Before you can ponder over this scene too much, the film takes off, but not so fast that you will get whiplash.

The matches at the Homeless World Cup are played on synthetic turfs with four players and one goalie on each side. There are no restrictions on gender or age. Many of the players are either asylum seekers, addicts in recovery, or have become homeless in the past year or two. The 14-minute matches are very reminiscent of futsal, which generally has five players on each side as well. But for a film about such an energetic game, The Beautiful Game is devoid of vivacity.

The problem isn’t that the story is sentimental. Being corny is no crime. Bill Nighy, who looks as sharp as a tack in his well-tailored suits, is also lovely to watch. The issue is with the uninspired and uneven writing. The story is exceptionally formulaic, riddled with familiar tropes, often added just because it fits the package. The subplot involving the Japanese team happens to be the most fun of the lot. Mostly made up of older men who seem to have lost all hope, this team is led by the young Mika (Aoi Okuyama). As they find their way through the gorgeous Rome with gelatos in hand, they infuse the film with much-needed moments of joy.

Despite Vinny being the main character, the very capable Ward is wasted on a guy who spends much of the film being an absolute sourpuss. The reason for his behaviour is explained way too late in the movie. If placed earlier in the film, this backstory could have made rooting for Vinny easier. Nonetheless, his redemption comes too late. And the fact that it doesn’t come with any sense of accountability—for pushing his teammate Nathan (Callum Scott Howells) off the wagon of addiction recovery—makes Vinny all the easier to detest.

Robin Nazari’s Aldar, a Syrian refugee, and Cristina Rodlo’s Rosita, an American refugee, aka “dreamer”, are the two more interesting characters that could have been explored further. A “dreamer” refers to someone who arrived in the United States as a child with undocumented immigrant status. They are often allowed to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme as they navigate legal uncertainties regarding their residency. 

Despite losing the third spot medals to the English team, Rosita ends up getting scouted for a scholarship program at the University of Colorado. This means she is well on her way to getting US citizenship. That alone might not entail a Rosita spin-off, but it might be a more thrilling story than the white saviour exploitation nation that was The Blind Side.