Homely, twee and only a little dark, The Keeper very quickly feels like Sunday evening fodder. Telling its affectionate tale of football versus prejudice, this is a tidy period affair, effectively designed and pleasingly dressed. The structure leaves much to be desired, particularly in the rushed final third, but gung-ho performances from a likeable cast do much to cement engagement.
The keeper in question is Manchester City legend Bert Trautmann, here played by The Reader’s David Kross. Perhaps best known for breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley – and playing on for the victory regardless – Trautmann also brought to English football a remarkable recent history. Remarkable, that is, for being wholly unlikely. Directed by German filmmaker Marcus H. Rosenmüller – this being a continental co-production – The Keeper opens not on the pitch, with a young Bernhard learning how to play the beautiful game but on an all together different field. The year is 1945 and Trautmann is a Feldwebel Nazi soldier, fighting on the front. A few hundred miles northwest, the gentle folk of St. Helens, Lancashire, find their jazz bash interrupted by the deafening squeal of an air raid siren. Almost simultaneously, Bert in the east and Margaret (Freya Mavor), his later wife to be, up north feel the shattering impact of a bomb landing nearby. Ooh ‘eck as like.
Cut several months down the line – the film has much to get through in two hours – and Trautmann has been entrapped in a denazification POW camp not so far from St. Helens. When it becomes apparent that this former ‘kraut’ is a dab hand in goal, local manager Jack Friar (John Henshaw), father of Margaret, is quick to snap him up. St. Helens F.C. are in dire straits and could do with a win to stave off relegation and financial ruin. But can the team accept an enemy in their ranks? An attempt by Jack to disguise his find’s origins – ‘this is Bert from Bradford’ – comically flops, whilst Margaret is among his strongest critics, but history beckons. Soon, Trautmann is scouted and propelled to the big time. Initial protests subside and the world accepts Bert as the Nazi but nice chap he is: ‘I’d rather have danced with you than fought on the battlefield but I didn’t have a choice’. A pity that Rosenmüller and co-writer Robert Marciniak aren’t more attuned to the evident hypocrisy here, favouring more uplifting channels. In one scene, Bert literally woos a bird into his hands.
For all its critical faults, The Keeper is thoroughly enjoyable on the base level. Henshaw has made a career from playing everymen like Jack Friar and, as ever, he proves just right as the film’s comic pacemaker. At the story’s heart – this isn’t really about football – Kross and Mavor are a well matched duo and do well to sell a union foghorned a mile off. There’s an unfortunately clichéd role for erstwhile Harry Potter star Harry Melling, as the irksome Sergeant Smythe, and Dervla Kirwin feels underused among the men. That said, there’s harmony enough in Rosenmüller’s ensemble to overcome the odd ropey line – ‘If we loose this, we’re going to be in trouble’ – to enchant a charming sensibility. The sense that this story would have quite easily suited a serial format is tangible, becoming only more so as giant leaps propel the film through a decade in its closing strides. It’s a rushed finale that sweeps Trautmann through to the tragedy that would later end his marriage.
A little less speeding and a few more twists might have done wonders for The Keeper but it’s hard to picture a scenario in which Rosenmüller’s chosen tone could ever have led to a meatier offering. That said, the film works. Undeniably so. There’s charm aplenty, good humour and enough heart to excuse the faults.