Sometimes, and particularly when reaching a certain age, really great, nuanced roles can be hard to come by in the film industry. So Johnny Harris, who tormented audiences with his harrowing turn in the This is England TV series, decided that rather than wait patiently for such a part to fall into his lap, he’d go off and write it himself – drawing on personal experiences to pen the screenplay for the compelling British indie Jawbone.
Harris plays Jimmy McCabe, a former boxing youth champion who never quite fulfilled the potential he had once promised. With his life at a crossroads he finds himself drawn back to his old club, reconnecting with foes and friends he considered family. His old trainer William Carney (Ray Winstone) is still knocking about, as are is promoter Joe Padgett (Ian McShane), and vitally, cornerman Eddie (Michael Smiley) – as the trio welcome in this blast from the past, and despite any initial apprehensions, they get behind Jimmy, as he steps valiantly back into ring years after he was once considered to be a real contender in the sport.
Harris may have written himself a wonderful role to get stuck into, but that’s only half the job done, but thankfully he brings the character to life with a captivating performance. It’s understated too, not always about what is said, but really the subtle glances, the beaten and bruised face, every wrinkle telling a story, with pain behind his eyes. What transpires as a result is an intimate character study, transcending a mere sporting movie to ensure that fans of cinema can take a lot away from this, not just fans of boxing. It’s not just Harris who impresses either, as director Thomas Napper has assembled quite the cast – and when you leave supporting roles in the hands of such dependable, experienced actors, it makes the world of difference. The film doesn’t just work narratively, but aesthetically too, with a stylistic approach that doesn’t feel contrived in its execution, as we capture that underground mist of a boxing fight – certainly taking pointers from the likes of Raging Bull in how they’ve made the sport appear almost like a choreographed dance, and yet somehow ensured spontaneity – boxing’s finest trait – is not lost along the way.
Paul Weller’s soundtrack matches the tone of the feature, and while many of the boxing metaphors for life (of which there are many, even becoming expressions integrated into everyday speech like ‘saved by the bell’, or ‘his back is against the ropes’) are all extensively covered, it doesn’t take anything away from this impressive drama. The boxing ring is so often a triumphant stomping ground for filmmakers, and Jawbone carries on the trend.