Monday, 2 January 2017

Eddie The Eagle (2016)

We often bemoan the loss of culture in a society that makes stars and so-called national treasures out of reality TV performers, but the fact is this is nothing new. Britain has always loved an oddball who, following some unlikely attention grabbing moment, enjoys their fifteen minutes of fame. Get your stupendous tits out during a rugby union match between England v Australia at Twickenham? Enjoy the spotlight, Erica Roe - she even has a real ale named after her! Deputy leader of Liverpool's Militant Labour City Council accused of corruption? Yup, take the spotlight Derek Hatton, in fact - here's a menswear modelling contract and a TV ad for Sekonda too. And then there was Michael Edwards, aka Eddie the Eagle.

Now granted, Edwards did a little bit more than streak topless across a rugby pitch or come to the attention of the criminal justice system and be condemned evermore in the political world to achieve his popular fame. With a lifelong determination to become an Olympian, Edwards put the work in to become a downhill skier but a lack of funding and a failure to qualify for the '84 games led to him performing a spectacular about-face;  exploiting a technical loophole, he went on to become Britain's sole ski-jumper, qualifying for the '88 Winter Olympics in Calgary. He was the epitome of an amateur, mediocre at his chosen sport but with an unshakeable belief in the old adage that it is the taking part that counts. Britain, loving an underdog as much as an oddball, was happy to shine the spotlight once more, to celebrate and to take the eccentric Edwards to their hearts. Following the games, he became a bizarre British populist hero - not just in the UK, but in much of Europe too - with many appearances on TV, advertising campaigns, and even attempts at a singing career. It was the kind of story you simply couldn't make up - and when you come across one of those, the first thing you should do is dramatise it.

This film has been in development hell for almost ten years before its release this year. Originally slated to star Steve Coogan and directed by Declan Lowney, by 2009 Lowney claimed it would actually be Harry Potter star Rupert Grint who would step into Eddie's skis rather than Coogan. However that too fell through and the film seemed no more, until producer Matthew Vaughn and director Dexter Fletcher arrived with Vaughn's Kingsman star Taron Egerton happy to take the lead. The subsequent movie lands upon the celebratory tone that so enraptured Edwards in his heyday but greatly embellishes and mythologises the man's life and experiences at Calgary, tipping its hat to the tropes of so many inspirational sports biopics that it almost feels like an affectionate spoof of the genre itself at times.

So, what is the fiction? Well for a start, whilst Edwards was indeed a no-hoper in the field of the ski jump - being heavier than his fellow competitors, farsighted to Mr Magoo standards, and totally self-funded - he was a proficient downhill skier who had relocated to Lake Placid, New York post-'84 to improve his chances of qualifying for the downhill team next time around. It was there however that, on seizing upon the loophole, he began to train for the jump under the tutelage of John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn  - neither of whom feature in this film. Instead, the film's writing team of Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton mine the previously successful underdog sports drama Cool Runnings -  which concerned the Jamaican bobsled team of the same winter games - to create a drunken fallen hero of the sport who gains redemption by mentoring our keen amateur. Played by Hugh Jackman, this character's journey of winning back the approval of his former coach (played, even more bizarrely, by Christopher Walken) actually threatens to upstage Eddie's ultimate triumph in a manner that really should have been reconsidered at the draft stage. 

But what of Eddie himself? Well I have little experience with Egerton but found him to be the perfect choice to play Edwards, walking a tightrope that provides an accurate impersonation of the heavily bespectacled gurner without detracting from the drama and heartfelt characterisation that is required from such a biopic. The script requires him to centre his performance on the aforesaid celebratory tone of loving the underdog, but personally I always found Edwards a curious mixture of a joke and a bit of a bighead. This latter less attractive trait underlines Edwards' speech in the film during the press conference in which he announces his intention to tackle the 90m jump; "I love jumping," he announces, "almost as much as I love proving people wrong" The film doesn't explore it, but it's easy to see that Edwards, having got a bite of the cherry, wanted the whole buffet for himself too.

Fletcher's film adheres to the genre of the feelgood, against all odds movie beautifully and, with its training montages and its synth heavy soundtrack (featuring both songs from the '80s as well as the tax dodging dullard Gary Barlow bringing together a plethora of pop stars from the period to produce new material), it actually feels like a biopic that could have been made at the very time the film is set. It's an interesting achievement and once again marks the actor-turned-director Fletcher down as an intriguing filmmaker to watch. Eddie the Eagle is a better film that his last - the Proclaimers jukebox musical, Sunshine on Leith - but it is still some significant way behind his enjoyable and skillful debut, Wild Bill. This old Press Gang fan however was very happy to see Fletcher had cast his former co-star from that kids show, Paul Reynolds, in the small role of a journalist with The Scum newspaper.

Heartwarming and with great period detail, but surprisingly light on laughs, Eddie the Eagle probably achieves what it sets out to do, though what it sets out to do is all too familiar (Cool Runnings is essentially this movie) I didn't feel the love or indeed the hate that others feel about it. It just felt OK to me, and I wonder if it would impress me more if I had no history or knowledge of Edwards prior to it. In short, I think this is the kind of film that would be better received in territories that don't really know Edwards the clown who Britain made a strange, quasi-national treasure in his heyday, or by a generation who came long after the 1980s. Though that said, the film has got me thinking about the idea I had once about that fat British guy who wanted to be a sumo wrestler back in the 80s or 90s...I still think there's a film in that. I wonder if my fellow St Helener Johnny Vegas would be interested?

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