VOD film review: Fever Pitch
Ivan Radford | On 11, Jul 2021
Director: David Evans
Cast: Colin Firth, Ruth Gemmell, Mark Strong, Neil Pearson
Where to watch Fever Pitch online in the UK: BritBox UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
“It’s only a game.” “Don’t say that. That’s the worst thing anyone could say.” That’s the sound of a couple disagreeing about the importance of football in Fever Pitch, 1997’s romantic comedy about an obsessive Arsenal fan trying to work out his goals in life. In years when the World Cup and Euros take over TV screens for a whole summer, it’s a conversation that may well unfold in many living rooms across the country – and, while today’s football fandom can descend into dangerous foolishness or outright hooliganism, thanks to the acts of a pernicious minority, this portrait of fandom from a more innocent time still resonates in its ability to see both halves of the sport.
That’s partly thanks to its strong cast, with Ruth Gemmell playing schoolteacher Sarah with just the right balance of pride and practical common sense. She’s good at her job, works hard and takes the responsibility of educating kids seriously – and, even though she might not seem popular with the pupils, they grow to respect and thank her. Colin Firth, meanwhile, plays wonderfully against type as the brash, immature Paul, a fellow teacher who doesn’t know how to plan a lesson in advance but can memorise a whole season’s calendar of football fixtures. She thinks he should grow up, he thinks she should lighten up. As her friend, Jo (Holly Aird), puts it, “I’ve seen this movie before, you end up shagging on the carpet.”
Nick Hornby’s script, adapted from his own book, follows Paul and Sarah through Arsenal’s 1988-89 championship-winning season, and mirrors the ups and downs of the team in their fledgling courtship. But while there are plenty of witty putdowns and arguments between the couple, the screenplay works because it rings with autobiographical truth; it understands Paul’s passion for the sport, with flashbacks to him as a boy, as he longs to escape from his parents’ divorce (an excellent Neil Pearson and Lorraine Ashbourne).
Of course, football appeals to more than just men who come from complicated families, but Fever Pitch captures the solace and camaraderie that can exist as a stadium chants together, as strangers are united in a common purpose for 90 brief minutes. All of this is done without words or lectures, but through director David Evans’ visual storytelling and the cast’s reactions.
The film does this, however, without losing sight of the wider perspective, enabling us to cheer on Paul’s fanatical devotion but also root for Sarah’s determination to explain to him that it’s only 11 men chasing a ball around a patch of grass. The duo have a convincing push-pull dynamic that ripples through the entire production, crafting a tale of compromise, negotiation and mutual understanding that crucially extends beyond just the remit of football. The climax may lack the big screen punch of a well-honed Richard Curtis rom-com, but there’s nuance to be found along the way, from observations about male behaviour in groups (watch out for a young Mark Strong as Paul’s best mate) to the way it respectfully handles the Hillsborough disaster. If your household can’t decide whether to watch the game or not, this is a winning warm-up that scores where it counts.
Fever Pitch is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.