Fading Bull: Considine’s Heartfelt Drama of an Incapacitated Boxer
Following his final championship match, a boxer suffers a serious head injury that alters his personality and hinders his physical abilities, with far-reaching consequences upon his family and friends in Journeyman, written and directed by Paddy Considine, who also stars in the main role. Considine rose among a rank of actors in a series of British films by portraying an eclectic range of characters and climbed up to the director’s seat with his critically acclaimed feature debut Tyrannosaur in 2011. Despite being equally tragic and heartbreaking in tone, this betrays the audacious, raw power and reverence Tyrannosaur held over its working class milieu, and comprises a slick production at times verging on mellow sentimentality about a successful sportsman struggling with a horrendous physical and psychological condition. Journeyman is incredibly moving, all thanks to Considine’s magnificent performance.
Middleweight boxer Matty Burton (Considine) is getting ready for his final prizefight. Faced with a ruthless and aggressive opponent, Andre ‘The Future’ Bryte (Anthony Welsh), he is dead set on maintaining his championship belt, with the larger aim of securing a prosperous future for his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and infant daughter Mia. Having recently lost his father from his corner, Matty is nonetheless supported by a cluster of friends, as it seems, both in and outside the boxing ring.
But things don’t go as planned. Despite reclaiming the world championship title, Matty barely survives a disastrous blow to his head and crumbles on the floor later in the evening. Emma is quick to call in an ambulance, and in a matter of screen minutes Matty reappears at the hospital and then back at home, though with a deep surgical incision on the side of his head. It’s a shocking moment; seeing a healthy person reduced to a state of physical and mental incapacitation, and the emotional weight of the scene is accentuated all the more poignant with Considine’s sheer ability to convey the character’s anguish and helplessness.
During one of the early scenes, Matty mimics an Italian-American accent while talking to Mia, and the fact that he is a boxer naturally brings to mind Robert de Niro’s unforgettable performance in Raging Bull. But Journeyman doesn’t quite follow the stylistic bravura of that boxing masterpiece and rather sets the scene in the realm of another de Niro picture, Awakenings, as well as referencing his arresting rendition of a catatonic patient, which Considine echoes through deploying an array of gestures and utterances. Agonized by his loss of memory, unable to clearly speak, eat or even make a decent cup of tea for his wife, Matty’s incapability soon disrupts his marriage, but will he manage to regain control of his body and soul, much less his life?
There is little doubt that the film’s greatest achievement is in the ensemble acting, spearheaded by Considine himself, though equally affecting by Whittaker. While the screenplay capitalizes on the emotional depth of Matty’s predicament, it also lacks certain elements in expanding on the actual world in which the story takes place – and in this respect, what we miss is the translation of the socially relevant poverty and despair depicted in Tyrannosaur into the conditions of a relatively well-off middle class in the same rugged environment of Northern England. But the film boasts technical merits, particularly the razor sharp editing, which disorients the viewer through rapid and startling inserts of violent punches swung at Matty, altogether a fierce reminder of his misery and the nature of the sport.
Matty’s journey involves not just his relentless ascent to world boxing championship, but also his fall from it – the real fight, as it were, is his utmost battle against a terrible tragedy that has wrecked his consciousness and agency as a person inasmuch as a boxer. There is an old-fashioned, perhaps even antiquated feeling to Journeyman, because in the end its narrative feels too didactic, too classical in its dramatic conventions: seeing Matty undertake rigorous rehabilitation, take control of his disorder, and eventually overcome his confused trauma makes for empathic viewing, but it also underlines these old values of self-perseverance and human dignity against all odds.
Reviewed on October 17th at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival. 92mins