‘The Beautiful Game’ Review: Bill Nighy Leads a Game Cast in Netflix’s Sweet, Predictable Soccer Dramedy

Amusing, uplifting, and about as sugary and teeth-sabotaging as caramelized popcorn, The Beautiful Game celebrates the healing power of team sports for those who might feel pushed to society’s margins by misfortune or choice. Although prefaced with the vague assurance that it’s based on true stories, this comedy-drama by eminent British screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce (The Railway Man) and directed by Thea Sharrock (Wicked Little Letters) is a tidily assembled, happy-ending-hewing narrative package that revolves mostly around the fortunes of a half dozen unhoused men, competing for England in the Homeless World Cup.

Bill Nighy stars as the team’s manager, a former scout for major London football club West Ham, who takes the team to Rome, where he must also accommodate each player’s foibles and faults, including the arrogance of star striker Vinnie (Micheal Ward, of Empire of Light). After a short theatrical run in the U.K., the film has transferred to Netflix, where it will play especially well in territories in which they call the beautiful game of the title by its proper name — football, not soccer.

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While there are narrative digressions to meet team members from other nations — especially the South African crew managed by nun Sister Protasia (Susan Wokoma) and the star player for Team U.S.A., Rosita (Cristina Rodlo) — most of the story focuses on the blokes from the England squad. Vinnie is met first taking over the ball in a local park where a match is on among young boys, invoking the wrath of a father on the sidelines.

Mal (Nighy) bails him out of the dispute and persuades him to play with the rest of the team, all of them homeless men of varying ages who became unhoused for very different reasons. Goalkeeper Kevin (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), for instance, had a gambling problem that got so out of hand he lost everything. Aldar (Robin Nazari) is a Syrian refugee. The sweet-natured cheerfulness of Nathan (Callum Scott Howells from It’s a Sin) belies his dark backstory: He was a heroin addict whose behavior was so challenging for his family that his otherwise loving mother Sian (Sian Reese-Williams) had to insist he couldn’t live at home anymore, although she is still in his life and supports his footballing ambitions.

Most of the team members sleep in a hostel at night, but Vinnie, in denial that he’s homeless, lives out of his car and tries to see his ex-girlfriend Ellie (Jessye Romeo) and young daughter Evie (Jesuslina Baah-Williams, adorable) when he can. Occasionally, he finds work in “logistics,” which means doing parcel deliveries. It’s only in the film’s final act that we learn about the life event that sent him into a somewhat controlled but still precarious spiral.

Vinnie’s pride (typical striker) and refusal to identify with his teammates means he struggles to integrate with them both on and off the field when they all go to Rome for the annual Homeless World Cup, an event organized by local Gabriella (Valeria Golino). Naturally, Vinnie gradually learns to open up to his teammates over the course of the film, even though he insists on sleeping each night in the open air rather than share a room with Nathan. The team makes their way up toward the final, thanks not only to Vinnie’s stellar skills, but the script makes exactly the sentimental swerve in terms of outcome that one expects in a film where playing, not winning, is the real reward.

As with Wicked Little Letters, Sharrock shows an assured touch with comedy that’s funny without necessarily being cruel. Between her direction and Cottrell Boyce’s script, the film rolls along smoothly like many a British sitcom, finding its humor largely in mild embarrassment, ironic understatement and well-rehearsed comic timing.

Nighy can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but the less well-known castmembers hold their own quite well with him, especially Ward and Scott Howells — although the latter should be wary of getting typecast too often as a doomed naif like his character both here and in It’s a Sin. The problem is he’s so likable and yet vulnerable as a screen presence that viewers might find themselves wanting to cry at the mere sight of him.

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