Film Review: The Pass Tackles Football’s Dirty Secret

The Pass ★★★★☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 98 months ago

Last Updated 17 March 2016

Film Review: The Pass Tackles Football’s Dirty Secret The Pass 4
Russell Tovey and Arinze Kene in The Pass.

"Course I'm not gay — I'm a footballer!" cries Russell Tovey as if that makes any sense whatsoever in this exceptional film of John Donnelly’s play The Pass. It ran a few years ago at the Royal Court Theatre and now kicks off the BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival.

Tovey plays Jason opposite Arinze Kene as Ade (above), two mates who were signed up to an unnamed Premier League club as kids, but whose trajectories turn out to be completely and painfully opposite. It’s a film of three halves, each one taking place in a different swanky hotel room at intervals of five years (the movie transfer sticking closely to the original play's structure, yet managing to avoid feeling stagey throughout).

At the start the pair are teenagers, sharing a suite ahead of a critical Champions League match, both needing to shine so they can get noticed and rise up through the ranks. They are understandably nervous, strutting about in their y-fronts as they playfully try to psyche each other out. Both performances are pitch perfect and the scene flows from banter to fractious argument as believably as if we were watching two real brothers sparring in private.

The contradictory culture of football — both homoerotic and homophobic — creates a palpable tension that looks like it can only end one way, but what a harmless romantic clinch means to these lads is massively complicated by the profession they want to succeed in and the prizes they are eyeing.

The film addresses the fact that historically in this country most gay footballers stay in the closet until their playing days are over (there are currently no out players in the top four divisions) and nods subtly towards the story of Justin Fashanu who killed himself eight years after being the first player to publicly declare he was gay in 1990.

In The Pass, the repression and psychological dissonance take a decade to sort through and the drama draws in Lyndsey a duplicitous stripper and a Mancunian toyboy who nearly ends up a casualty of the rage emanating from one of the main duo's uncontrollable self-loathing. These secondary characters are as just as well drawn as Jason and Ade, both Lisa McGrillis and Nico Mirallegro having honed the roles alongside Tovey at the Royal Court.

And director Ben A. Williams deserves serious plaudits for showing how to make a microbudget British film feel huge, and never letting the tension escape. He opts for smart and simple stylistic choices so he can foreground the character work and Donnelly's excellent dialogue, which continually invokes big issues yet remains carefully tethered to the emotions of normal people cornered by the ugly side of the beautiful game.

The Pass had its premier yesterday at the BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival and is on again at 3.50pm today (17 March) if you can make it. Hopefully it will get a well-deserved cinemas release soon.