Friday, 27 May 2011

The Sports Fairytale

At the weekend, Cinderella Man was broadcast, and since I hadn’t seen it but had heard good reviews about it, I decided to sit down and give it a go. Needless to say, I seem to be developing a taste for boxing films (The Fighter, Rocky) and Depression-era films (Water for Elephants), so having both sounds like a winning formula. And suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Cinderella Man is the true story of boxer James J Braddock, a fighter in Depression-era Jersey who, after failing in his sports career first time around, is given a second chance to escape the breadlines and labour at the docks and to support his family, fighting his way back up to the top. It’s essentially a feel-good story, and I understand why so many people have been inspired by his rags-to-riches tale.

Firstly, I have to say that yes, it is a boxing film, but like many boxing films out there that isn't what it's all about. This is the story of one man trying to overcome financial hardships and provide for his family, with themes of loyalty, lifelong bonds and suffering. Of course there is boxing in it: I'm not a fan of the sport in real-life, but in films it always seems to have so much more emotion because you understand the backstory for their involvement, rather than just observing people punch the crap out of each other. That is essentially what this film is - the boxing merely provides a backdrop for a story which inspired many and truly touches people, both then and now.

Now, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Russell Crowe in the main role: for one, I haven’t really seen him shine as an actor before, and this didn’t seem like the type of role where he would excel. He doesn't look like a boxer, and he doesn't really seem like someone who can fully pull off the domestic husband role; I have to say though that I was impressed with the balance he gave to it, portraying both a family man and determined sportsman with an impressive level of emotion. He surprised me in a very good way, and it's a shame that he can't be more consistently good in other roles that can be as strong as this one.

Renee Zellweger, for me, lets the film down. I am never really impressed with her acting, and this role didn’t really change that opinion of her. I could see her trying to convey emotion, but it failed, essentially. She was wooden and not that believable as a woman who makes the unbelievably hard choice of sending her children away so that they can actually eat, or as someone whose husband fights murderous boxers for a living. Towards the end of the film, I thought her performance was over the top in such a way that made her look ridiculous and, in fact, like a petulant toddler. In another actress’ hands, I could see this role being portrayed a lot better; it certainly calls for an actress better suited for dramatic roles, and her casting is one of the only criticisms I have.

The highlight of the film for me was Paul Giamatti. I really respect him as an actor anyway, and he was Oscar-nominated for this, which he completely deserved. He held the film together as James’ long-time trainer, Joe Gould, whose dedication to James is heartfelt. It’s a demonstration of bromance and loyalty at its most emotional. One scene which shows the real state of his home life was heartbreaking, and shows the reality of just how many people were affected by the Depression. He plays Joe in such a dry way, but made me laugh many times throughout whilst also bringing an intense vulnerability to the character. The chemistry he and Crowe had was surprisingly good, and I really believed that they had this long-standing bond and understood the relationship between them.

Other aspects supported the film too. Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) was directing, so obviously it wasn't going to be disastrous by any means, but he uses some very clever cinematography to show various different aspects of the film - one technique I liked was the flash of x-ray when a particularly brutal punch was delivered in the ring, implying serious injury, or the various motion techniques that highlighted certain aspects. The music also added effectively to the drama. Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, The Lost Boys and frequent Pixar contributor) uses gorgeous instrumentals to really emphasise the emotion of the scene, or to build tension - I especially liked the climactic music which really supports the mood of the audience.

Overall, a film I would definitely recommend to anyone who likes action and drama films, or period films, or biopics... pretty much anyone. Catch it if you can. The performances, for the most part, are strong and the story is an inspirational one which will stay with you for a long time.

Verdict: Somewhat predictable, even if you don’t know the story before watching it, but inspirational, heartfelt and emotional. Strong performances lead this film, and even if boxing isn’t your thing, give it a go and get involved in the story of one man just trying to gain a better future for his family.


Watch today or tomorrow on iPlayer (I watched it twice in three days I liked it so much):

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