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Non-Review Review: Journeyman

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Journeyman is a very traditional and formulaic film in some regards.

The plot and arc of the film are very familiar. Matty Burton is a veteran boxer, and World Middleweight Champion. During a bout defending his title against aggressive young challenger Andre Bryte, Matty suffers a catastrophic setback, and is left picking up his pieces and struggling to put his life back together. Along the way, the trauma has serious and profound consequences for the people around him, including his wife and his best friends. Journeyman hits most of the beats that the audience expects from a story like this, occasionally feeling formulaic and predictable.

However, Journeyman is a reminder that these are not fatal flaws in a feature film. After all, a formula becomes predictable for a reason; that familiarity comes from repeated exposure to it, and the repeated application of a narrative formula is a testament to its durability and reliability. Journeyman is in someways a blending of the typical boxing movie with the typical recovery movie, but also a demonstration of just how effective all of these conventions can be when applied with proper skill and energy.

Journeyman is a very conventional film, but it is also a deeply satisfying one.

There is something particularly compelling about the sport of boxing, given the sheer volume of prestige pictures built around the sport: Rocky, Raging Bull, Creed, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, The Boxer, Ali, The Hurricane, Southpaw.  Indeed, given the sheer volume of these films, it is not surprising that Journeyman should have a pretty direct antecedent. It is quite easy to point to another high-profile prestige picture about boxing that follows the rough structure of Journeyman, demonstrating just how well-explored the boxing movie is as a genre.

It is interesting to speculate about why boxing has such a firm grip on the cinematic imagination, particularly for prestige awards-season productions. It certainly seems more popular than baseball or football. It may be something connected to class, the opportunity to observe a sport that is traditionally seen as more working class. It may also be the ease with which boxing lends itself to allegorical storytelling, presenting a literal struggle for its participants on top of the more metaphorical struggles in their day-to-day lives. (After all, who hasn’t taken a beating… from life?)

Whatever the reason, the framework is solid and reliable. Journeyman understands the rhythms and beats of a story like this. Indeed, there is something almost charmingly low-key in all of this, an understanding of how well the characters and the audience understand the storytelling structures around which the film is build. After one particularly high-stakes battle, Matty returns home to his waiting wife only to casually assure her “I f$%kin’ did it” and ask for a cup of tea in the sitting room. This is all business as usual.

There are some points at which this storytelling does feel a little heavy-handed and clumsy. This is most obvious in the characters who occupy the fringes of the narrative, who never really get the opportunity to be deepened or developed as the story goes on. This is perhaps most obvious during Matty’s early engagements with his boxing rival, Andre Bryte. Matty is a middle-aged man who is polite and respectful; Andre is a young pup who is crass and insulting. In one the movie’s least subtle moments, it is revealed that Andre literally bills himself as “the Future.”

Still, Journeyman is never any less than efficient in telling its story. As writer and director, Considine understands that a story like this is only as strong as its constituent elements. Journeyman has the luxury of two powerhouse central performances. Considine is a wonderfully understated performer, with an impressive range, and he helps to flesh out Matty. Over the course of the film, Considine manages to bring out the best and worst in Matty; his frustration, his humility, his decency, his charm. This is particularly impressive given the changes that the character undergoes over the course of the film.

Considine also has the luxury of a superb supporting performance from Jodie Whittaker. As with Considine, Whittaker’s charming and understated style that helps to ground the movie. The pair have a natural, low-key and easy chemistry, both actors comfortable with one another and in their own roles. There is something sincere and natural in their performances, something genuine. In both cases, the performers provide a sense that these characters have lived a life beyond the confines of this movie, adding texture and weight to what is in many ways a very straightforward story being told.

Journeyman is a sturdy boxing and recovery movie, one built on a familiar template. However, it’s also a demonstration of just how well that template works, particularly when brought to life with such skill and warmth.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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