Some time ago I reviewed The King’s Speech, and expressed some surprise that two of the film’s standout performers, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush, weren’t more decorated than they ended up being when awards season rolled around. The film that snatched the ‘Best Supporting Actor/Actress’ Oscars away from them was The Fighter, which I have no got around to watching.
In some respects, The Fighter is just another sporting underdog story; the underdog in question is Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer who lives and trains in his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. His trainer (whenever he can be persuaded to stop smoking crack) is his brother Dicky, a former boxer himself (“the pride of Lowell”) who is perpetually obsessed by his career highlight, beating Sugar Ray Leonard live on HBO some years ago. With his brother proving an unreliable trainer and his mother (Melissa Leo) an imperfect agent, things come to a head when Micky is soundly thrashed in a high-profile match against someone twenty pounds heavier than him. Ashamed and unhappy, Micky starts to withdraw from family affairs and, when his brother is arrested and discredited, he turns his back on boxing altogether. And you can probably guess at the basic outline of the rest; persuaded to get back into training by his father (Jack McGee) and inspired by his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky wins a couple of high-profile matches and takes the welterweight title.
Put like that, you might think this film was a sort of gritty reimagining of Rocky, but there are three very good reasons why a boxing film managed to overcome all the Academy prejudice you might expect against this sort of thing and bag two Oscars. The first is that all-important phrase ‘based on a true story’: Micky Ward is a real guy with a successful career behind him (he has now retired) and, although multiple details are apparently innacurate, Ward really did give up on the sport for several months amid his brother’s battle with drug addiction before achieving success. Not only that, but the entire film is done in an incredibly realistic fashion; there are no stylistic frills stuck on for the sake of appearances or to make anything more ‘dramatic’. This works perfectly with the gritty, uncompromising and in some respects unpleasant story, and the dedication and attention to detail of all involved is plain to see.
This sense of realism spills over into the film’s second killer edge: the acting. Although Wahlberg, apparently a big fan of Ward’s, was possibly the most committed of all those involved (spending four years in training, refusing stunt doubles for the fight sequences, living with the real Ward brothers for a time), he frequently struggles to deliver much beyond gritty seriousness in his non-comedic roles, and his performance here, whilst more animated, is merely good. The real stars are, perhaps predictably given the awards they bagged, his supporting cast: Amy Adams is the least decorated of them, but her performance is infused with a kind of fierce determination that both perfectly suits her character and builds throughout the film, giving the piece an extra level of depth and realism as we see development across the board, rather than just those the story deals with. Melissa Leo delivers a masterclass in character acting as the matriarch of the Ward family, her simplest mannerisms and inflections allowing the audience to pretty much fill in her entire back story and character traits with barely a word spoken. However, it is Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky that really steals the show- every half-smile, every crazed whirl of limbs, all the casual swagger, even the way he hangs his shoulders reveals to us the character within, building this complete image of a character built entirely on his own brand sometimes delusional self-confidence (bordering on arrogance on occasion), yet still encompassing some small sense of shame and self-loathing at what he knows are deplorable activities. When his fall finally hits, as it inevitably must, one facial expression is all it takes to show us how this entire frame of reference has come crumbling down around him, and it is Bale who offers up the majority of the film’s emotional punch. In a nice extra touch, director David O. Russell included a small segment featuring the two real-life Ward brothers during the credits, showing just how well Bale captured both Dicky’s distinctive, outgoing style and all his expansive mannerisms. Whilst I’m not 100% sure that Leo’s performance beats Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech that won her the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Academy award (although, frankly, trying to compare two such radically different films is a somewhat impossible task), I am damn sure that Bale here knocks just about every other supporting actor role ever performed into a cocked hat and thoroughly deserved his Oscar.
The final thing that elevates The Fighter above mere ‘sporting film’ status is its thematic nature. In most sporting films, the key theme is one of redemption, of overcoming some great adversity and winning through despite all the odds. This idea is most certainly present in The Fighter, and indeed forms the centrepiece of the film, but it is underplayed and, much like with the acting, in which the supporting actors are able to add so much more than the apparent lead, it’s the supporting, secondary themes that really drive this film: those of family, of self-destruction and of trying to do what’s best. And all the casualties that those result in. One particularly well-used underlying theme is that of shame, and indeed it could be argued that shame, or at least guilt, becomes a key motivating factor for every one of the characters in the end, each character having their own personal moment of epiphany of their own failings that drives the film onwards. Indeed, the character of Ward is perhaps unique in this regard, for whilst shame forms a key part of his character early on, the key moment of his character development comes from positive outside influence.
The limitations (to call them failings would be far, far too harsh) of the film’s central premise and character are enough to prevent The Fighter from being a perfect film, and cause it to lack something in the way of true emotional weight; but then again, a truly perfect film will never be made. What makes this film work is David O. Russell’s ability to weave the apparently secondary themes and stories that the film has to tell into its very fabric, turning it into a film that is fundamentally about so much more than a boxer and a couple of big fights. I didn’t fall in love with The Fighter, but I am prepared to stand up and applaud all day anyone who takes an easy story and does something special with it.