A big season, this, for Greg Cruttwell. Next month, the BFI revives Mike Leigh’s Naked, in which Cruttwell landed his most indelible acting gig as the yuppie scumbag Jeremy. This week, however, he resumes writer-director duties with this genial indie that casts Leigh alumni and TV stalwarts as football-crazed individuals, pouring their hearts out to a mostly static camera for 90 minutes, plus injury time. It is an innately theatrical proposition, like a fringe play that’s snuck in through the Odeon fire doors. Yet this is pretty sound stuff, engagingly performed: if not a resounding triumph for one medium over another, then the kind of honourable draw that sends everybody home reasonably happy.
Its tactics derive from the Alan Bennett playbook, revealing what first seem like eccentrically heightened passions, whether for Spurs or the fictional Sandersbrook United under-12s, as cover for deeper, more personal struggles. In the boardroom, Emma Amos’s non-league chairwoman mulls the ethics of an affair with her married manager over glasses of chardonnay; superfan Stephen Boxer (The Crown’s Denis Thatcher) splutters sausage roll while overinvesting in a juniors’ team (with reassuringly wholesome reason); hotshot Samuel Anderson has his status challenged by an influx of academy kids. Inevitably, referees get some stick: Mark Hadfield provides comic relief as an official who refers to the pitch as his “kingdom”, only to see himself royally dethroned.
The overarching editorial stance is a generalised sigh about money never trickling down to grassroots, and if Cruttwell’s niche punning (“No way, José Mourinho”) can’t match Bennett’s Messi-level wit, he’s good at drawing out distinct personality types. Brian Bovell is a picture of affability as a cabby-turned-scout, while Candida Gubbins proves a mid-film dynamo as a late convert drawn by her Dulwich Hamlet-supporting beau into barracking “the Tooting scum”. Like Leigh, Cruttwell affords his players time and space to run a mile, further shaping the credible chatter with judicious cutting between workaday locations. It’s refreshing, too, to see a football-themed Britpic that swerves the overworked territory of hooliganism; as Gubbins’ Amelia insists: “There are no hooligans at Dulwich.”