2020 | DIR: BEN MOLE | STARRING: SAM GITTINS, MICHAEL ELKIN, JOE EGAN | REVIEW BY DAVID NAGLE.
BEHIND THE LINE is a flyweight film with heavyweight ambitions. Despite the clear limitations of budget and experience, Behind looks to emulate some of the best World War II, sports, and World War II-sports movies around. From The Great Escape and the recent Dunkirk, to Triumph of the Spirit and Escape to Victory (and even Rocky IV), director Ben Mole’s film has a rich vein of cinematic history to mine. But it’s a shame that it never grasps which seams to focus on, which nuggets to keep and which to discard. Instead it becomes too much of a mashup of ideas and threads that would have benefitted from a tighter focus. A tight focus befits and benefits a tight budget.
Behind follows two members of the British Expeditionary Force who find themselves lost in France during their army’s retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Former champion boxer Danny (Sam Gittins) and Billy (James Haynes) run into a local French villager and her father, seeking help to find their way home. But a tense standoff soon ends with the ever selfless Danny suggesting they surrender to the surrounding Germans. To await transfer to Germany the pair are taken to a nearby makeshift prison, where the commander notices Danny's name and spots the chance to make things a bit more interesting for himself. Commander Drexler (Tim Berrington) forces Danny into fighting for his and his superior's entertainment, all while he and the other prisoners plot a way to escape.
Drexler is an attempt at the ‘sophisticated’ Nazi villain, one who sees himself as only part of the war for his own purposes, above his “more zealous colleagues”. The shoots are there and Behind could have developed this more, could have given the audience something on the path of the iconic Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds. He's not the only character that could have done with more development. While Gittins brings an easy, cockney wide-boy charm to Danny, he doesn't have quite the presence to hold the screen. Antonio Burstoff meanwhile, playing a French-Algerian prisoner, only gets one short scene but brings more emotional depth than any of the rest manage – maybe they should have focused the story on him.
Mole allows himself a few filmic flourishes – shadow boxing in the shadows, a stylistic introduction to Danny’s final opponent – but overall his direction is simple and would have gained from more play with lighting and varied lens choice. The fight scenes are tight but they don’t make the most of the inherently cinematic nature of boxing. It’s easy to lose the pattern of the fights, the rhythms of the round. The film also flies through its last 15 climactic minutes, while it paradoxically drags out earlier less hefty or necessary scenes. But it actually finds a confidence in those final moments that ironically brings the flaws of what’s come before into sharper focus. Had that confidence been extracted and extrapolated over the rest of the running time we might be talking about a wholly different level of film.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rough and ready movie made with the same boys’ own energy that the film tries to hark back to, then Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk might be for you.