Paddy Considine – star of his second feature film as well as writer and director – manages to translate the physical pain of fighting in the boxing ring to the blow of familial loss in this graceful story. Centred around a fatal fight that simultaneously earns middleweight champion Matty Burton his title’s defence and loses him his life as he knows it, Journeyman hinges on a game-changing moment that feels akin to that of losing a loved one. What it means for Matty – glorified celebrity champion boxer – is that triumph is completely redefined.
A gruelling slug-out in the ring that sees Matty suffer a beating from young challenger Andre “The Future” Bryte (Anthony Welsh) culminates in a vote for the undefeated champion as winner. Whilst he takes home the shiny belt, however, he suffers a collapse that leaves him broken, unable to physically function, and struggling to remember his beloved wife and baby daughter. The rehabilitation he must endure to not only reinstate his health but to become a fit husband and father again makes his pursuits, up until that point, seem pathetic in comparison.
The uber-simplistic cinematic tropes employed by Considine to build his story allow all the flair of the film to take place in the development of his central character, Matty. Considine portrays his struggle fearlessly; a driven athlete, with a fear of emasculation and not living up to his father’s reputation, with nuances of a damaged ego and a consequent need to be looked after. As with Tyrannosaur, much needed dry moments of humour tinge tragedy with hope. And as with Tyrannosaur, we are getting to know a complex man with whom we don’t always sympathise.
Journeyman is structured around the build up to a ‘fall from grace’ moment, and the trauma recovery that follows. The first forty minutes are loaded with Kubrickian tension: sadistically loving displays of tenderness with wife and baby in the home that are too fragile not to break; press events and pre-game weigh-ins full of taunts from his cocky opponent, who foreshadows his demise with the repetition of the phrase, “life-changing.”
A slow and steady second half – deliberately monotonous, entrenched in the repetitive routines of sportsmanship, matched by the solely domestic tasks performed by his wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker) – is pierced occasionally with sharp inserts of violence, which come in the form of ring flash-backs, or else undeserved attacks from Matty unto his wife performed out of frustration. Each one hits home, although this routine allows very little divergence of character exploration beyond that of Matty himself, for whom physiotherapy is his way back to health. Jodie Whittaker’s character, for example, seems to take pleasure in nothing but housewifery and maternal duties, and when she finally leaves her newly abusive husband (incidentally after an assault on their child, overlooking those directed at her), we know nothing more of her experiences until she reappears, loyally, at her husband’s semi-recovered side.
This is not so much a failure of Considine’s as a writer but a case study of which stories get told about whom, time and time again. Self-professed cinephile, Journeyman is also Considine’s love letter to Scorsese’s Raging Bull amongst other worshipped masterpieces (the opening slow-motion boxing shots take us right back to that back-and- white title sequence featuring Robert DeNiro’s rippling face). It wouldn’t be overreaching to see the violence against Emma as a further homage – even if subconsciously – to portrayals of toxic masculinity in cinema that are accepted as part of a man’s “journey.”
Her isolation from suddenly being appointed thankless carer of her husband is reinforced by the absence of life-long friends and members of Matty’s boxing team Ritchie (Tony Pitts) and Jackie (Paul Popplewell), who are apparently too devastated to visit. Their intense ringside loyalty dissipated, it seems they too have suffered a hit to their ego, but unlike Emma, they are able to act on their cowardice and look the other way. It is only when Emma removes her support
from the situation that they return and begin to train him with care and patience. Again, all is forgiven.
Ultimately moving, this is the story of a very personal journey with simple intensions, and Considine’s shaping of one man’s anxiety at losing it all – and having to face what ‘all’ really is to him – comes off. The lasting note is one of hope; that even in the wake of life’s unpredictable destruction, health can be accessed should you choose to access it. It just would have been nice to know what Emma thought about the whole thing.
JOURNEYMAN will be released in UK cinemas on the 30th March