Twentyfour seven



British Prime Minister Tony Blair is shaping up as some sort of Prozac exorcist for the evil decade that was Thatcherism. The grasping, atavistic individualism that Old Dutch Reagan peddled to Maggie's shore now seems a distant memory. And in its place is a rising sense of community spirit, even in communities where the spirit moves not so easily.

Witness Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins), a successful contractor in the '80s, who surveys the development he brought to a Midlands town and doesn't like what he sees. Too many people living in too many shitty little council flats with little hope of anything better. Darcy remembers the boxing clubs of his youth that kept him and his mates away from desperation and sets out to do a bit of recreational social work on a clique of local toughs. He speaks their language, understands their wounds and knows how they fight for the dignity and respect they can get only from themselves. Consequently, the first act of the film is perhaps its strongest, because of the masterful shuck and jive that Hoskins uses to get the lads involved, the town on board and the club off the ground.

Director Shane Meadows clearly knows he's making a small picture and keeps his focus on character nuance rather than large shifts of plot. His cast of unknown kids possesses a lovely chemistry as they spar and take the piss out of one another. The dialogue would be the envy of any screenwriter interested in slang and its conflicting subtexts of pride and loathing. Not a word seems mannered or even scripted. The black-and-white photography has a remarkable flexibility, capturing the grittiness of the town and the boxing club, as well as the luminosity of the rugged countryside. We get a real feel for a people who live surrounded by beauty but can only soak in cultural bile.

The ending, a cyclic return to the opening, falls prey to clich├ęs of class fatalism. Meadows doesn't offer a pat, happy resolution. But neither does he provide a satisfying one. The film just loses its energy when a match between competing boxing clubs breaks down into a lager lout dustup. The boys go back to their quiet desperation and Darcy checks out. But if "kitchen sink" realism is back to stay, pour this little gem a triple.

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