Being associated with comedy must be a burden. Wearing this weight of expectation, it’s no wonder that Jessica Hynes looks quite so exhausted throughout her directorial debut. The Fight is not, however, a comedy. Revolving around a plot concerned with the genealogy of bullying, this is actually surprisingly sober material from the star of Twenty Twelve and Up the Women. As first features go, it’s a touch uneven but essentially promising.
Not content solely directing The Fight, Hynes is its writer and leading talent too. She plays harassed mother of three Tina, a care worker with a husband who works on nights and parents on the rocks. Baggy clothes seem to hang from our hero, pulling her downwards as she battles through the relentlessly bleak patterns of her life. It’s hard to blame her for wanting to give up. When not brushing off her overbearing mother – an emotionally impressive Anita Dobson – Tina can either be found picking up the slack in her chaotic home life or pushing herself to the edge at a local fitness club.
Things get worse for Tina when the revelation that her eldest, Emma (Sennia Nanua), is being bullied at school is accompanied by the return of her own past. There’s a superb twist here and Hynes does well to deliver it empathetically, without losing the sucker punch. Forced to face up to her own demons – which she holds at bay via a Russell Brand voiced motivational audiobook – Tina is drawn to boxing. Fighting, in this context, is both cathartic and metaphorical. Surely, Tina does not intend to engage in combat with her foes? No. An early shot of granite stairs on Tina’s route home does much to communicate where this is going to anyone familiar with boxing’s film history. Regardless, the arc is uplifting and well earned.
Problems arise for the film when sub-plots vie against this central thread for attention. On top of bullies and boxing, Hynes ninety-minute script makes room for workplace racism, domestic abuse, parental neglect and a school talent show. Each strand is well considered but the effect of their knitted combination steals away opportunities for depth. Between the action, Hynes takes deep breaths with sweeping long shots and slowed motion but these drag in the absence of reflective provocation. Further still, Brand’s motivational interludes are particularly troubling as pace blockers. It seems evident that Hynes grew in confidence over the course of her twelve day shoot on the film and no doubt such wrinkles will be absent from future work.
Though Hynes’ general screen outlook is grey, there are some welcome splashes of colour to stave off the misery. One scene gives the mighty Alice Lowe a delightful cameo and there’s a lovely turn too by Sally Philips. Fresh from Jellyfish, Liv Hill once again displays an impressive ear for authenticity – as the school bully – and shines in a gorgeous forrest-based film highlight. Hynes is, herself, terrific and consistently believable in her character’s worn shoes. Much like Victoria Wood and Julia Walters before her, Hynes has under appreciated versatility in her corner. If The Fight isn’t quite a smash hit, it remains an endearingly humane start.