Micheal Ward and Bill Nighy make a dream team in Thea Sharrock’s homeless football league drama

The Beautiful Game

Source: Netflix

‘The Beautiful Game’

Dir. Thea Sharrock. UK. 2024. 124mins

The sporting underdog story is a sturdy, reliable framework, all the better if it is based on real life. In The Beautiful Game, the football team is homeless, so there is – literally – a liferaft of backstory; the coach is widowed, and he’s also played by Bill Nighy; and the setting is Rome, the Eternal City. Unusually, though, there’s no romance played out against the Spanish Steps – this turns out to be a soccer film directed by a woman (Thea Sharrock) which is mostly concerned with men’s mental health.

A charming, formulaic-but-with-some-edge story of second chances 

This charming, formulaic-but-with-some-edge story of second chances is the type of film which is currently packing punters into cinemas in the UK. Silver fox Nighy stars opposite the Gen Z film-star charisma of Micheal Ward in a film directed by Wicked Little Letters’ Sharrock and written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (Millions, The Railway Man) set in a golden hour Italy. Exhibitors would be cracking their knuckles. After all, there isn’t a bootstring it doesn’t tug on. But The Beautiful Game will just glance off the back of the net in theatres in the UK on March 22, before bouncing onto Netflix globally a week later.

It does seem like a wasted opportunity for a film whose length (just over two hours) and cast seem so suitable for big screen commerce. Like Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers, it will have to hope for the gods of the algorithm to fall in its favour and, perhaps, an awards campaign to boost visibility. Sharrock’s film is as manipulative as the genre dictates, with great swathes involving Ward’s proud character storming off and coming back to the team ad infinitum. Yet it’s a film with considerable heart and, in Nighy and Ward, the Tinker Bell sparkle of the true film-star. Also, with its subject, a plea for compassion that can never go amiss, however the film ends up finding its audience.

As written by Cottrell-Boyce, Michael Winterbottom’s former sparring partner, The Beautiful Game is efficiently structured at the outset, and Sharrock clicks its bones into place quickly. We go straight to the pitch, where coach Mal Young (Nighy, smooth as silk and equally appealing) is putting together a team of players for the Homeless World Cup (which in real life he co-founded) and targets Vinnie (Ward), a gifted and proud young father living out of his car. Vinnie is hostile; Mal is seductive. Their encounter doesn’t seem entirely accidental.

Other players in the squad for this four-man game include Syrian refugee Aldar (Robin Nazari), Irish gambler Kevin (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the Welsh drug addict Nathan (Callum Scott Howells, initially over-egging the part, eventually it works), hopeless thief Jason (Sheyi Cole) and Kit Young as Cal, the striker threatened by Vinnie’s raw talent.

Quickly, the film boots itself to Rome, where Valeria Golino is the tournament’s director and Sharrock starts to put together a formation play. Matches are interspersed with personal drama and background, and when that becomes a bit leaden (really, there’s only so many times Vinnie can threaten to drop out), other teams come into play – such as Japan and South Africa, led by a canny nun (Susan Wokoma). Their stories slowly grind against predictability to give The Beautiful Game a universality: not through scoring goals, but highlighting the issues at the film’s heart. Much time is spent stressing team work, but the point of the film really is not about what takes place on the pitch, but off it. No man is an island, after all.

It’s that mental health element of The Beautiful Game which distinguishes it from the rest of the field — that sandy grit of the reality of men who struggle with the world and all its cold, hard shoulders. Sharrock manages to do this without having to take the plot to ridiculous extremes: they are all there in the story already, without pushing her characters over even more ledges. The highs are small, but they ae significant: the lows were always built-in.

There are parts of The Beautiful Game which seem luxe, if not over-funded. The soundtrack, for example, which is heavily Paul Simon-focused between ’Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ (choral) to his collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and ’Homeless (Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes)’. And second unit had the run of Rome. The games, however, are a little sketchily put-together. And, of course, two hours is too long, and it flags.

Through it all, though, you have the double act of Nighy and Ward. The young Top Boy actor stood up opposite Olivia Colman in Empire Of Light and came away with a Bafta nomination. He’s here making Bill Nighy look better, and Bill Nighy always looks good. The Beautiful Game demonstrates that Micheal Ward is a leading man, if not the man of this match.

Production company: Blueprint Pictures

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Ben Knight, Anita Overland, Colin Farrell

Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Cinematography: Mike Eley

Editing: Fernando Stutz

Production design: Miren Marino

Music: Adem Ilham

Main cast: Bill Nighy, Micheal Ward, Susan Wokoma, Callum Scott Howells, Kit Young, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sheyi Cole, Robin Nazari, Valeria Golino