Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Eeron Milonoff, Oona Airola
Watch The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki online in the UK: MUBI UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
Rocky Balboa. Jake LaMotta. Adonis Johnson. Micky Ward. This year, another name is added to the list of cinema’s boxing greats: Olli Maki. Who? That’s precisely the point.
Juho Kuosmanen’s portrait of Finland’s real life boxer, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2016. That should give you a hint that this isn’t your usual boxing movie – and not just because it’s in black-and-white. And in Finnish.
Way back in 1962, Maki was pitted against the world featherweight champion, a battle that would put him, his manager and the country’s boxing industry on the global map. We join him preparing for the fight, as the nation rallies behind him, praying for a victory. It’s obvious right from the off, though, that he’s got no chance of success whatsoever.
What emerges is an oddly bittersweet sports movie with barely any sports in. Rather than pack in the usual training montages, we follow the build-up to the match away from the arena, as Olli sits through tedious press conferences and films painfully staged behind-the-scenes moments for ever-present cameras.
The result is a hilarious skewering of the boxing film cliches, made even better by Jarkko Lahti’s fantastic performance. His face channels both hope and failure, while director Juho Kuosman shoots in monochrome 16mm, giving everything the feel of a newsreel – a low-key vibe that makes it easy to overlook the film’s superb, realistic period design and precisely balanced tone, which perches between melancholy and optimism. You could swear you’re watching a documentary, thanks to the way Juho Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti’s script both undermines the fictional tropes of the boxing genre and adheres to our expectations from fact. It’s a masterfully subtle piece of filmmaking – and, woven delicately throughout, is the blossoming joy of new love between Lahti’s Olli and Oona Airola’s Raija, who share such delightful chemistry that it’s hard not spend the boxing movie thinking of a different ring entirely. That sweet heart combined with the tragic prospect of possible defeat makes this one of the romantic sports movies ever made. Olli Maki weighs in at only a slender 90 minutes, but this is truly knock-out stuff.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is available to rent on MUBI UK.