To quote (or more likely misquote) one television newsreader from this excellent and gripping documentary, “this is exciting stuff and I’m not normally interested in cricket”. I would not class myself as a cricket fan by any means, but here is the mark of an excellent documentary, to take a subject of perhaps limited appeal and find dramatic beats and overarching themes that resonate with us all.
For those wholly uninterested in cricket on any level, it may take a while to “get into” James Erskine’s fascinating presentation of the 1981 Ashes series and some of the narration may seem a little overblown at first, but I genuinely believe that everyone should be able to find something here to grip them. And gripping is the word. Tom Hardy’s resonant narration captures the epic scope of the 100-year war that is the Ashes, presenting enough background information to bring novices up to speed, without boring or alienating devoted fans.
In between Hardy’s descriptions of the on-field action, committee room shenanigans and off-field historico-political context, we are presented with a series of engaging and personable talking heads – the players, umpires and journalists who were there and saw it all unfolding. There is refreshing candour from all of the players concerned, with nothing resembling a revisionist history of events recent enough to be well-remembered. The players are able to bring to mind with evocative clarity how they felt as matches turned on a knife-edge, or suddenly slipped away. Footage is slowed down, repeated and then turned to grainy black and white, all to accentuate the emotions on show. None of it feels like a director experimenting with a bag of editing tricks, instead it stirs an emotional response that feels real, not contrived.
On screen titles take us through the dates and locations of each test match, with Hardy setting out for us how each day, each innings, each batsman was faring. Erskine is no doubt greatly assisted by how dramatic an Ashes series it was, with momentum swinging back and forth, the selection committee of the England cricket team prevaricating at every turn and the Australians forming factions as well. Players such as Ian Botham, Mike Brearley, Bob Willis, Kim Hughes and Rod Marsh all share their recollections in an honest, self-effacing way, despite so much personal and national pride having been at stake. Botham’s presence in particular is so effective as the film shifts between 1981 interviews with him regarding his feelings about being dropped as captain after the first few tests and a series of easy dismissals and his present-day, necessarily more philosophical contemplations on that immense summer.
As with many other true-life stories or documentaries, it would be easy to lose dramatic tension through everyone’s built in knowledge of the outcome. However, an intelligent film-maker can generate that tension and atmosphere (think Touching the Void or Apollo 13), regardless of what we might already know of the outcome. Such is the case here. The film pulsates with the drama of what is unfolding, how much it mattered to everyone, how focused yet exhausted Willis was, how beset by nerves and pressure Botham had become, how much of a part hubris had to play in the Australian’s defeat in the 3rd and 4th tests from seemingly insurmountable positions.
This is fascinating, gripping stuff from start to finish and I would encourage you to seek it out, regardless of your feelings about cricket. You can catch an exclusive clip from the documentary here, read our exclusive interviw with director James Erskine here, or rent or buy it from LoveFilm here.