This is the time of year when the cinemas are block-booked with Award-nominated films. Nearly all of these are English-language films which means we are a bit stuck for new product on the blog. Still, it is good to find real blue-collar American films in contention and I thoroughly enjoyed The Fighter – more really than I expected to.
Outline (no spoilers)
Micky (Mark Wahlberg) has eight siblings – seven sisters and an older brother Dicky (Christian Bale). His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) has had at least two husbands and Micky is presumably the son of George Ward (Jack McGee). It’s 1993. The family are working-class celebrities in Lowell, Mass. as a result of Dicky’s boxing career which ended after a fight with the great Sugar Ray Leonard fourteen years previously. Dicky has now become a crack addict but still attempts to live off his reputation. Micky, nine years younger, attempts to succeed in the ring ‘for the family’, but with his mother as his manager and Dicky as his coach, he appears doomed. Only when he meets a tough but bright barmaid, Charlene (Amy Adams) does he find a chance to move forward.
The film is based on the real life events surrounding Micky Ward and the brothers (as they are now) appear in a video clip included in the end credits. (According to Wikipedia, the fights actually took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s.)
Before seeing the film I hadn’t realised that Mark Wahlberg had been working for four years to make the film happen and that he himself came from a large working-class family in the Boston area. Darren Aronovsky was approached to direct but he ended up as Exec Producer and Wahlberg worked again with David O. Russell who had directed him in the Gulf War satire, Three Kings (1999). Aronovsky’s name immediately brings up the question of The Wrestler. There is a similarity between the two films – both are extremely well-directed with strong performances and both are in one sense throwbacks to the adult (as distinct from 15-25 year-old) orientated films of the 1970s. The Wrestler is more ‘romantic’ and driven by a performance from Mickey Rourke that almost mirrors that of his real life career. It might be argued that Mark Wahlberg is similarly-placed, but his performance is much more low-key and he is upstaged by Christian Bale as Dicky. In a sense, this was also a ‘comeback’ for David O. Russell.
I’ll probably be in a minority on this since Bale is getting all the plaudits, but I thought his casting was perhaps a mistake and his performance was ‘too much’. As my viewing companion pointed out, the real brother may have been similarly ‘too much’, but in a film it’s about how the performances work together. Christian Bale’s star persona is partly built around his physical style and his star performances as larger than life characters who are deranged in some way. Interestingly, the Boston Critics awarded the ‘Ensemble Acting’ prize to the film and that seems the right approach. The film has seven Oscar nominations including Supporting Actor Nominations for Leo, Adams and Bale. Wahlberg has to be content with a shared producers nom for Best Film. The Academy always goes for the showy performance it seems.
The other strange aspect of the film for me was the presentation of the seven sisters (from hell) – although, again, this may have been ‘true to life’. (Russell also discusses this and it is true that some of the sisters are weirdly engaging.) The strengths were the presentation of Lowell – a town I associate with textile workers during the Industrial Revolution – and the re-created boxing matches. I’m not a boxing fan as such, but certain fighters interest me because of their backgrounds (currently Amir Khan). I didn’t remember Micky Ward so I had no prior knowledge as to how the fights might work out. The film is fairly conventional and boxing stories are a Hollywood staple. Nevertheless, I became emotionally involved in the fights, almost as if they were ‘real’ (which in one sense they were of course). I think Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In) made the right decision in showing the fights in long shot as they would be seen on HBO rather than ‘getting in close’ a la Raging Bull. One fight takes place in the UK and it is completely surreal with an American stuntman playing Liverpool boxer Shea Neary.
I think I feel much as I did with The Wrestler. If mainstream American films were this good on a week by week basis, I might go back to watching them again. I hope David O. Russell is able to make more films set in this kind of milieu. There is an interesting take on Russell and on the politics of the film on the World Socialist Website.