In From The Side ****
Starring: Alexander Lincoln, Alexander King, Peter McPherson, William Hearle, Chris Garner, Carl Loughlin
Director: Matt Carter
Rugby is often seen as the western world’s most brutal sport, where players think nothing of coming off the pitch battered, bruised and wounded. Learning rugby on a muddy sports fields is a right of passage for British schoolboys and for many gay men - myself included - it was an absolute nightmare. However, in the UK’s biggest cities there is a smattering of rugby teams, where all the players of this hypermasculine heavy contact sport also happen to be gay. And this is where In From The Side is set.
Mark (Lincoln) plays for a cash-strapped gay rugby team in London, where he plays on the B-squad. On a night out after the first game of the season, he meets and beds Warren (King), a confident player on the A-squad, but who also has a boyfriend (McPherson) on the team. Mark is in a relationship too - albeit open - but as they begin to secretly meet up regularly, he breaks the rules he had set in his relationshop. Their illicit affair becomes increasingly passionate, but both know that its exposure would not only cause a tumult in their private lives but also carve a fissure right through the heart of the team they love so much. But with Gareth (Loughlin) watching suspiciously on - a jaded teammate who wants to make his presence felt - it’s only a matter of time before the affair is explosively revealed.
The very best sports films capitalise on what makes their sport unique and in the case of rugby, this is the obvious spectacle of mud, sweat and blood that proves just how brutal it can be. Like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, this zooms in on the minutiae of rugby itself, depicting in extreme close-up the moments of contact and conflict, making us feel impact and hear every breath. With a moody palate of browns and blues, it looks stylishly muddy, with its stupidly handsome leads feeling like they’ve stepped straight from a Ralph Lauren sportswear spread. Meanwhile its throbbingly atmospheric soundtrack is glorious, underscoring the sport to present it proudly as both captivating and brave. Technically, this film looks and sounds great.
At two and a quarter hours, its long runtime feels needless, however. The narrative meanders, with a lot of time spent on subplots and brow-beating that feel superfluous. The crux of the narrative would have been served better with a tighter focus and brisker pace and there’s a good twenty-minute segment that sees the action shift to Switzerland for an unnecessary diversion that plods through just a bit too much self-reflection than we have patience for.
Striking though it is for focusing on a whole team of gay rugby players without giving any of them issues surrounding their sexuality whatsoever, what’s left is an unremarkable extramarital romance with plenty of room for melodrama around it. It’s been made by a director with a keen eye for aesthetics, but its substance is still on the lighter side, without any significant examination of what it really means to cheat on your partner. There’s plenty of crying and guilt, but either the writer was unable to articulate it succinctly, or the actors couldn’t find the truth in it. Or both.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Verve Pictures