Going into Jawbone you’d be forgiven for not thinking much of it; a familiar story of a once promising boxer whose body wears the scars of age, alcoholism and unspecified traumas, taking one last fight in a desperate, stupid bid for glory. The presence of Ian McShane playing a small time slick-back gangster would usually be enough to dampen any desire to watch, but give this little British debut an hour and a half of your time, and you won’t be sorry.
Written by, produced by and starring Johnny Harris – whom some may recognise from the This Is England series – the story is unshakeably personal, with admirably sincere ambitions, stellar performances all round (even McShane) and a technical prowess that ascends the film above its routine premise. The opening is sparse of dialogue but conjures up a rich, dark atmosphere. Tat Radcliffe, the DoP of ’71 and Pride, shoots Harris, playing junior-champion-turned-alcoholic Jimmy McCabe, in punishing, shallow focus close ups; Jimmy swigs a vodka as the watchful presence of Westminster floats eerily in the background. This was an actual drinking spot of Harris himself, during his own struggles with alcoholism. As the night-time glow of Canary Wharf lingers above the flat from which Jimmy is to be evicted (nearby Harris’ actual home) there’s a palpable sense here that this is a London which has left men like Jimmy behind.
In an interview with the Guardian, Harris speaks of the difficulty facing white, working-class actors: ‘a lot of people only want you for the role of racist, misogynist, meathead’. With Jawbone, Harris set out to deliver ‘a working class film with poetry to it’, and he does just that. Thomas Napper, making the first jump to director after having handled Joe Wright’s second units for over a decade, keeps things tight, grounded and overwhelmingly human. The yearning, textured score from Paul Weller punctuates proceedings, and never veers into annoying or cliché.
Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley round off the cast as the two men running the boxing gym in to which Jimmy breaks in at night for somewhere to sleep. Winstone gives a warm, restrained and ultimately sorrowful performance with little screen time, and the ever-solid Smiley gives a bravura performance as the trainer who reluctantly takes Jimmy to his final, unlicensed match with a ‘bully up north’. The film raises suspicions around Smiley’s character but never follows through, and overall there’s a longing to know more about the people that inhabit this world. Likewise, this is a world where females are either ring side girls or referred to only in name.
The inevitable climax of the big boxing match is handled with a nerve-rattling intensity worthy of productions with a much bigger budget. Napper and Radcliffe shove the camera right in the midst of the action, imbuing the violence with a shaking, animalistic desperation. This is no glorious hall-of-fame bout, just a sweaty, scary slog for Jimmy to pick himself up off rock bottom and take enough money to at least survive the next few months with. There’s no cheering when the fight is over – just an anxious cocktail of luck and relief.
The film touches on the political – it’s framing of London as a cold, lonely, dystopia and the timely problem of gentrification underpin the entire narrative – and part of me wanted the film to go further with it. I mistook an AA meeting for a local residents housing meeting, but Harris is clearly more occupied with the immensely personal, and why wouldn’t he be? Harris stated he wanted the film to ‘celebrate people whose actions mean something, people who stick the kettle on, people who turn up’, and as we end on Jimmy staring down his toughest battle yet, you celebrate with him, and you hurt with him, too.