Wednesday 16 March 2016

Film Review: The Pass (dir. Williams, 2016) at BFI Flare 2016

BFI Flare, London’s LGBT Film Festival, gets underway between 16– 27 March. It’s a significant year for the Festival – its 30th anniversary, no less – and one that’s being marked with a number of special events, retrospectives and reminiscences, as well as a great selection of new films. (The full programme can be read here.)  

While the reach of the Festival remains resolutely – and hearteningly – global, the selection of Opening Night film for this year seems a pointedly British choice. Ben A. Williams’s The Pass is an adaptation of John Donnelly’s play of the same name, which explores sexuality in the context of contemporary British sport and celebrity. It’s been a notably quick turnaround for this adaptation: the play debuted at the Royal Court in 2014, where it got labelled (a bit reductively) “the gay footballer play” and where the frequent shirtlessness of its lead actors was one of the most remarked upon aspects of the production.

Rest assured, shirtlessness is still central to the film version (as the pics illustrate...), which Donnelly has written the screenplay for himself. The piece cuts into the lives of its two protagonists at crucial moments over ten years in three different hotel rooms. When we meet Jason and Ade they’re young guys holed up in a hotel in Romania, indulging in much banter and laddishness as they await a game that could prove life-changing for their careers. By the time the pair meet a decade later, only one has achieved the dream of superstardom, but the memory of what might have been remains – in different ways – sharp for both of them.

The play’s attention to attitudes towards homosexuality in football (and the way such attitudes can be damagingly internalised) is a pertinent, unexplored topic. Unfortunately, obviousness is as central  to The Pass as shirtlessness is: the piece places its conflicts on the surface and is sometimes pretty crude in developing them. (The title, duh, refers to both the erotic and the professional elements of Jason and Ade’s interaction.) 

The opening scene generates its only suspense over whether the pair will shag or not, and, as played here, the central section – with Lisa McGrillis overdoing it in a too-broad-for-the-screen turn as a pole dancer with her own agenda – is not entirely convincing.

Despite these shortcomings, The Pass proves fairly compelling, and, in its final stretch, becomes something rather more than that. Given that nothing has been done to “open the play out” for film - the action remains entirely confined to the three hotel rooms – the catch-all disparagement “stagey” is definitely going to be flung at the movie. For me, though, Williams’s distilled approach works just fine, and I have a strong feeling that the piece would fall apart completely if Donnelly had devised new scenes outside the hotel rooms (showing Jason and Ade on the pitch, say).

As it is, this boldly talky film builds to a tough and memorable climax that generates a surprising amount of emotion, revealing a truly touching sense of loss and waste in its characters’ lives, and somehow redeeming the less successful earlier sections. Well supported by Arinze Kene as Ade (and with Nico Mirallegro contributing a brilliant cameo as an up-for-it bellboy), the charismatic Russell Tovey really comes into his own here, communicating Jason’s combined arrogance and vulnerability, his bravado and neediness, in a way that’s pretty devastating, and that brings the patchy proceedings together in an unexpectedly powerful manner. It’s a bit of a shame that Williams and Donnelly see fit to add a soppy flashback coda. But the raw emotion of the previous scenes means that The Pass lingers in the mind for longer than you might expect.

The Pass screens at BFI Flare on 17 March. 

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