As a sub-genre, few are quite as consistently triumphant as boxing movies, thriving in notion of the underdog, surviving off that very concept that in that ring anything is possible, and no matter how much your back is against the ropes, no matter how many times you may be saved by the bell – one moment of magic and the contest could be turned in your favour. Finnish drama The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki revels in this very idea, based on a real life story that pitted an outside bet against a safe one – told in a uniquely Scandinavian way, where romance takes precedence over the archetypal sports narrative.
Set in 1962, we meet Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti), the modest, self-effacing boxer awarded a shot at the World Featherweight title against Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.) by his eager trainer, and self-imposed promoter Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff). A huge deal, certainly, but you would hardly know, as Olli seems nonplussed about the forthcoming event, far more concerned with the fact he’s just fallen in love with Raija (Oona Airola). While the nation awaits the bout patiently, and those around Olli persist in reminding him about what a significant fight this will be, the only thing he truly wants to win is the heart of his new girlfriend.
Director Juho Kuosmanen, who picked up the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for this tender, engaging endeavour, offers a heightened take on reality, revelling in the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of every day life, and yet while doing so never detracts from the realism of the piece, as we become so caught up in this fledging relationship. The comedy that exists, albeit remarkably subtle, derives from these very moments, but at its core this is a film that celebrates love and all of its foibles, to watch as this man becomes so heavily distracted from such a purposeful event in his life, thinking only of his loved one. The romance works because it’s so understated and nuanced, it’s not about the dialogue, it’s the small glances they make at one another, the way the camera lingers on every touch, every smile. Not much is said at all between them, but then words may only cheapen the impact. We can so often garner much more without them.
It’s amusing also to see how the circus that surrounds boxing is ridiculed somewhat, with few other sports so suffocated by the promotional aspects and financial ramifications. Naturally this is something that has worsened with time, and while relevant in that regard, the use of a monochrome aesthetic adds a real timeless quality to this story, proving that while it may be set in a nation and era the majority of us are unaccustomed with, when it comes to the depiction of pure human emotion that resonates with any of us, it serves to remind us just how powerful and compelling cinema can be.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is released on April 21st