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The Beautiful Game Review: Nighy & Ward Shine

Bill Nighy, Michael Ward and other football players walk determined in Netflix film The Beautiful Game

Bill Nighy and Michael Ward elevate Netflix sports drama The Beautiful Game, an underdog story that feels reminiscent of Ted Lasso.

If there is a sub-genre that is sure to put smiles on faces and often fit for family viewing, it’s a sporting underdog story, from Cool Runnings to Eddie the Eagle and Bend It Like Beckham. This is an area particularly suited to British Cinema it seems, with Thea Sharrock’s The Beautiful Game, joining this list, focusing on the Homeless Football World Cup, which has been held every year since 2001 and involves seventy countries.

Bill Nighy’s Mal is an experienced Football Coach and talent scout who now oversees the England homeless football squad. We open in a park in London, where Michael Ward’s Vinny catches his eye with some deft moves (albeit against a group of kids). Mal invites Vinny to join the squad with Vinny living out of the back of his car and struggling to find shift work. The bulk of the action revolves around the World Cup itself taking place in Rome with a ragtag mix of players, who do not seem to be able to work especially well together.

This blend of hopeless players, inspired by their coach, feels reminiscent of Apple TV+’s smash hit series Ted Lasso, and there is certainly that feel-good element to it. Like that show, The Beautiful Game tackles some deeper themes like addiction, with comments on belonging and cultural differences highlighted by some players from the competing teams being refugees.

Bill Nighy and Michael Ward are really what holds the film together. They share fine chemistry as the jaded Mal, who often talks to his deceased wife, and Vinny, who daydreams about how his short-lived stint at West Ham might have panned out. It is a soft but powerful performance from Nighy, with an energetic, earnest turn from Ward that further cements his rising star status.

Vinny initially hates the concept of being homeless; he feels like a failure in the eyes of his young daughter and looks down on his teammates.  The core of the story, while predictable, shows the strength of community and the benefit of working as a team. It also shows the impact of sports to help improve communities, with the real homeless World Cup having helped millions across the globe. 

Bill Nighy jumps and shouts in victory with an arm raised during a football match in Netflix film The Beautiful Game
Bill Nighy in The Beautiful Game (Netflix)

The rest of the team feel more peripheral, but we clearly see how playing for the team has positively impacted their lives and helped them move on from past turmoil’s, drug addiction in the case of Nathan. The mix of rising stars who make up the rest of the team, like Callum Scott Howells and Kit Young, hold their own against their established co-stars.

Thea Sharrock, releasing this film hot on the heels of Wicked Little Letters, shows growth as a filmmaker. She finds more depth and balance than her previous film, with some impressive editing from Fernando Stutz. It helps that the film was written by acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce delivering a heartwarming script that plays to the strength of its cast.

While, for the most part, there is plenty to admire in The Beautiful Game, it gets bogged down in some of its subplots, which can at times meander. This is especially true of one involving a potential romance between members of the England and US squads, which almost feels like it came from a different film, as some of the gags don’t land. There are also attempts to focus on some of the other squads at the tournament, but they feel too insubstantial to have a meaningful impact. At 2hrs 5 minutes, it could have been a tad shorter, but this never derails the film.

The Beautiful Game might not break new ground in terms of sporting underdog stories, but it is carried by its likeable central cast with strong work from Bill Nighy and Michael Ward and some promising rising stars especially. It will go down well with fans of this style of film and is likely to become a future family favourite, especially in the UK. While it is a tad overlong with a few subplots too many, this does not take away from its charm and the moments when it shoots on target. This is the perfect Sunday afternoon film, with a surprising amount of depth.

The Beautiful Game will be released in select UK cinemas from March 22, 2024 and globally on Netflix on March 29.

The Beautiful Game: Trailer (Netflix)
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