Fever Pitch

(David Evans, UK, 1996)


It’s an old, familiar story, in life and on film: a guy who cannot commit to his lover because he remains stuck inside the magic circle of a particular infantile or adolescent passion. For Paul (Colin Firth), that passion is sport, and specifically the Arsenal Football Club.

Fever Pitch is adapted by Nick Hornby from his autobiographical novel. There is less sports detail in the film, and a more conventional love story to counter-balance the hero’s obsession and provide him with an eventual path to redemption. One of the strengths of Hornby’s tale is the persuasive way it takes us inside and makes us understand Paul’s everyday madness: to be an Arsenal fan is a way for him to feel connected to a family-like community, and also to prolong the idealism, joy and energy of youth.

Paul and Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) meet at the school where they both teach English. This setting allows Hornby and debuting director David Evans to interweave the side-stories of other adults and children connected to the sports craze in one way or another. This mosaic effect also triggers a splendid series of flashbacks to Paul’s childhood. Young Paul’s bewildered reaction to his first, live game is later mirrored, more darkly, in Sarah’s fear when jostled by a stadium of angry, screaming yobs.

Like much British cinema (such as The Van, 1996), Fever Pitch takes a particularly loving interest in the mundane rituals of daily life. The nutty way that sports fans dress even their domestic pets in Arsenal colours, or the ecstasy they can share just watching television together in the lounge room – all this is vividly captured and conveyed. On the whole, this film dwells far less than most British productions on the grinding, miserable, dead-end qualities of suburban existence. Edging ever so slightly towards an American feel-good model of storytelling – complete with a generous and rousing selection of pop songs – it celebrates those touches of homely sublimity which unexpectedly light up ordinary lives.

Much of the film’s charm is due to its cast. Firth strikes a very convincing balance of moroseness, excitability, narcissism and nice-guy charm. Gemmell does not have such a plumb role, but she successfully dissuades us from regarding Ruth as simply a snobbish, strait-laced, uptight ’70s feminist. Fever Pitch is a modest movie with relatively simple and straightforward intentions, but it is perfectly successful and affecting within its own terms.

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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