Riley’s excellent documentary focuses on the perhaps unlikely subject of university boxing — or, rather, Varsity boxing; the annual, not-terribly-well-known outside Oxbridge boxing tournament between Oxford and Cambridge.With Cambridge bringing in professional coaches and turning their pugilistic abilities around, Oxford — with its ramshackle collection of punching wannabes — is up against it. And Riley’s with them every step of the way.
He follows several of those trying out for a year, from Kavanagh, the tiny but argumentative philosopher, to Charlie, the heavyweight fine arts student. They’re not the most likely candidates for a boxing Blue, the badge of honour awarded to successful sportsmen and women, and even their coach, Des is bemused. Des, looking liking Gordon Ramsay’s wirier brother, didn’t get this sort of education and got into boxing as an escape, a chance to get out of the rat race. But these boys? ‘It fascinates me,’ he says, with a shake of the head. ‘They’re university boys’
In the course of Riley’s enjoyable film, the reasons for each individual’s willingness to get smacked around a boxing ring is not always clear or logical. But you can’t doubt their hearts and that’s the real joy of this unexpected delight. Astrophysicist and general overachiever Justin is typical of the team. A graduate from the American Air Force, a skydiver and a Christian, he’s doing a PhD at Oxford and is a likeable collection of contradictions. While initially he comes across as a bit of a knob — ‘I’m binary, man, if I’m on, I’m on all the way’ — his scientific mind, religious heart frequently lead to some of the film’s most poignant moments. He may have signed up for the challenge – ‘and that’s sure as hell what we’re gonna get’ — but his post-match euphoria (‘I guess there are moments when you’re just closer to your god’) seems to surprise him as much as the audience.
While the film could happily lose 15-20 minutes of misty spires, duck ponds, beautiful quadrangles and other highlights of the Inspector Morse Tourist Guide to Oxford, this is a marvellous and stirring piece of filmmaking. By the time the chosen few make it into that final ring — and not all of them do — you’ll be taking the punches with them. Gripping and inspiring, and in its eccentric way, not as far off When We Were Kings as you might imagine.
EXTRAS *** There are four full varsity bouts (with Justin, Fred, Boiler and Charlie), half a dozen deleted scenes, a Q&A session conducted by the Guardian newspaper with director Stevan Riley, coach Des and boxers Boiler and Kavanagh, and the theatrical trailer.