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The Boys in the Boat review - a Boy’s Own true story told in formulaic style | reviews, news & interviews

The Boys in the Boat review - a Boy’s Own true story told in formulaic style

The Boys in the Boat review - a Boy’s Own true story told in formulaic style

George Clooney’s latest is a highly predictable shoutout for the underdog

Solid crew: Callum Turner and Jack MulhernWarner Bros

Seabiscuit, Creed, Rocky, The Full Monty, Chariots of Fire… George Clooney’s latest directorial project is in the same vein as these earlier films, but swap Seabiscuit et al for a rowing eight. 

All have a format film-makers love because they know it will jerk a tear from anybody who loves a saga about an underdog, especially if it’s true. The Boys in the Boat is based on a 2013 bestselling account by David James Brown (co-writer on the film) of the US rowing eight’s bid for glory at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The date is significant because the historical context allows the boys in the boat to serve as proxies for weighty roles beyond their sporting one. 

James Wolk and Joel Edgerton ini The Boys in the BoatThe setting is Seattle, Washington, where Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a young man living in a burnt-out jalopy, dining on crisps and stuffing his worn out boots with newspaper to block the holes, is struggling to survive. He stands with scores of others in the mornings, waiting for a day’s work, but despite his strong physique is not hired, and the college where he is studying to become an engineer is insisting he pay his tuition fees. HIs equally hard-up friend Roger Morris (Sam Strike) encourages him to try out with him for the University of Washington rowing eight – which will provide them with accommodation and a paying job while they are in the crew. Of course, they slog their guts out in the trials, sometimes literally (vomiting is a regular hazard in competitive rowing), but they make it, along with seven other impoverished students.

From here, with an Alexandre Desplat score that moves between a light tinkling piano and jingoistic trad jazz setting the tone, you can predict the pacing and structure of the film almost down to the minute: the hard-scrabble training, the joy of being selected and doing even more hard-scrabble training; then the first test, taking on the University of California seniors (Joe’s team are in the junior boat) at the Poughkeepsie Regatta, before the Big One, competing in the Nazi-showcase Olympics, under the eagle-eye of the Führer himself.

These poor young men first have to be the sporting heroes their college needs to raise alumni donations. Then they segue into representing the aspirations of post-Depression America, pitted against privileged students in the boats from top colleges – as one florid radio commentator (Chris Diamantopoulos) puts it, those with old money versus those with none at all. That’s just the appetiser. When the US Olympic team organisers tell the boat’s coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, pictured above with James Wolk as Coach Bolles), his team will have to fund their own bid in Berlin, they are then forced to stand in for the whole nation, winning hearts and cash pledges from around the country as the gallant young of America, home of the brave. 

None of them is from any kind of ethnic minority, but the script handily puts them at the opening ceremony near the Black athlete who will incense Hitler by winning three golds, Jesse Owens; he sets them straight when one says to him, isn’t it great to be running against the world? No, he says, he is trying to impress “the folks back home”. The R-word is not used but heavily implied.

It’s basically a good yarn, but it emerges as the kind of soft-centred crowd-pleaser that sends you rushing for proof of its authenticity. Sure enough, the film’s time span, one year from recruitment to Olympics, turns out to be two years less than the time it actually took the eight to reach peak condition. Which doesn’t really matter that much. But other little grace notes in the script are fabrications, such as the impressive generosity of the rival “Cal” boat’s coach and the final’s photo finish. 

CALLM TURNER AND HADLEY ROBINSON IN THE BOYS IN THE BOATThe cast, many of them British, are a good physical match for the real people they are playing, and have been drilled hard to row authentically too, which gives their performances extra piquancy. There are lovely turns from Jack Mulhern as the crew’s introverted pacemaker, Don Hume, and Luke Slattery as the mischievous cox, Bobby Moch, who has to steer his crew to victory with a tin megaphone strapped to his face. His maverick manoeuvres add much needed zing to the races, where you can feel the editing trying to wring excitement from the uniform motions of the rowers. 

But half the boys in the boat go unexplored, and the film overall has almost too many characters, robbing the key ones of screen time and depth. Turner’s Joe is given only just enough to do to justify being the leader of the pack, such as a romance with a pert blonde, Joyce (Hadley Robinson, pictured above with Callum Turner), from his high-school days, who rather mystifyingly turns up in his engineering lectures, along with a remarkable number of other women students. If only.

He is also given a brief encounter with the insouciant father who abandoned him at 15 (Alec Newman), there to add ballast to his character, presumably. In loco parentis, he has the creator of his boat, an Englishman called George Pocock (Peter Guinness), whom he helps lovingly stroke the surface of the boat with sandpaper and oil. Guinness is a Shakespearian player of some renown, and his fruity tones and commanding presence are balm here – until he has to deliver a ham-fisted homily to Joe the night before the Olympic final that even he can’t quite make sing.

Meanwhile, the fine Australian actor Joel Edgerton, playing the crew’s coach, has only the usual motions to go through as a driven man who drives others to the brink, though not over the edge. It all slips down easily, but perhaps a little too easily.

You can predict the pacing and structure of the film almost down to the minute


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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