South London, City lights in the distance. The crepuscular gloom envelops a man felled by loss, drink and impending homelessness. He has nowhere to go, and no loved ones. Yet “Jawbone” is a quietly exhilarating film.
As Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) hits rock bottom, he returns to his local boxing gym. It becomes home. He hides there at night to sleep. During the day his wish to return to the ring is tolerated with tough love by his mentor and father figure (Ray Winstone). He can practice there, he is told, and rebuild his life. But there are conditions. One slip-up, one unlicensed fight, one drink, and he is out.
And here a Faustian pact emerges. McCabe’s daily effort at survival is laborious. An unlicensed fight might help him soldier on and up. He meets in secret a boxing promoter (Ian McShane), another mentor figure from the past. They have an unsettling exchange where kindness and harshness interplay. It is a compelling moment. McCabe is offered, almost tenderly, something which may be either opportunity or destruction. His benefactor turns out to Mephistopheles to his Faust. There is an odd sense of intimacy to this moment, a gift given by someone who is both a bit good, and also quite bad.
If Jimmy takes on this gift, then it may be safer for him to box to lose rather than to win: his adversary is known to be wild.
The ensuing boxing match is compelling. Not the intense voyeurism of boxing film classics but something very different, a visual reinvention of being in the thick of blows – echoes of the kinetic energy seen in Wong Kar Wai’s collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in a muted colour palette. Thomas Napper’s direction and Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography hit here something powerful.
Johnny Harris, known for “Snow White and the Huntsman”, “Game of Thrones”, and “This is England ’86”, plays McCabe, and is also the writer of a story which he says is not autobiographical. There are personal echoes in other ways. Harris and his fictional character have boxing in common. Both were youth champions, and come from the same South London neighbourhood.
Paul Weller’s soundtrack adds a richly textured layer to the film’s mood, disquiet and contemplation. Familiar actors such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane, and the boxing and redemption themes, are given something fresh here, vivid.
McCabe’s Faustian pact is more Goethe than Marlowe. The darkness dissipates, and the film’s opening words, an old testament reference to Samson, come true. ‘The victory was not in the arm, not in the weapon, but in the spirit’. This film packs a punch and it lands somewhere good.
Director Thomas Napper
Writer Johnny Harris
Producer Michael Elliott
Cinematography Tat Radcliffe
Music Paul Weller
With Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Michael Smiley.
Jawbone is available to buy, rent or stream from Amazon.
Paul Weller’s soundtrack is now available on vinyl, streaming and MP3 from Amazon.
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