Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Iris Berben, Christopher Walken
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writers: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton
We Brits love a good underdog story. We all love to root for the everyman that we can see ourselves in as they overcome adversities and obstacles on the road to victory. Britain in particular has an enthusiasm for the David vs. Goliath types of stories that can be traced back to her small island mentality and ‘the Dunkirk spirit’. It is a romantic sensibility that has often been featured in British sports films from Chariots of Fire to Bend It Like Beckham. It’s why Eddie Edwards was so popular with the crowd when he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edwards was an amateur skier who, without sponsorship or promotion, was able to earn his place amongst the champions of the world at the single greatest sporting event on the planet. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect concept for a British underdog film.
Growing up in a working-class household, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has dreamed of competing in the Olympics since he was 10-years-old. His mother Janette (Jo Hartley) wants her son to dream and to have great ambitions while his father Terry (Keith Allen) wants to bring Eddie back down to Earth. Even after becoming a proficient skier, Eddie is refused so much as a chance to try for the Olympics due to his unsophisticated manner and lack of a ‘proper’ upbringing. Determined not to give up on his dream, Eddie finds that he can improve his chances of qualifying for the Olympics if he competes in a sport without any current British competitors, opting for the ski jump. He sets off for the training facility in Germany where he is mocked and ridiculed by those who are more practised and seasoned than him. There he falls into the company of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former American ski jump champion, who agrees to train him in the sport.
Although the story in this film is largely fictionalised (Jackman’s character isn’t real, Eddie was a more accomplished sportsman than the film suggests, etc.) the film very much captures the underdog spirit that Eddie Edwards inspired. Eddie is portrayed as an awkward and clumsy person who lacks class and style but makes up for it in heart and determination. He adamantly refuses to be daunted by the challenges he faces or to be disheartened by the ridicule of others to the point that he will suffer great pain and indignity in order to realise his ambition. He isn’t after fame or fortune or even prestige. All he wants is a chance to prove himself and to participate in an event that celebrates achievement, hard work and fortitude. When he finally makes it to Calgary he doesn’t care about winning or breaking records, he is just so grateful to even be there that he displays a fervent enthusiasm that proves to be contagious to the world watching him. In many ways Eddie Edwards is the greatest fulfilment of the Olympic motto which holds that the most important thing is “not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”.
As admirable as the story is though, I’m afraid there isn’t much to set it apart from the line-up of sports films that have come before. The underdog’s journey is very much by the numbers and the underdog himself isn’t exactly the most compelling of protagonists despite Egerton’s efforts. The portrayal of the British Olympic officials as a pompous and sneering bunch who villainously set out to prevent Eddie from succeeding also seemed rather generic to me (although if you do have to cast someone in that part, you certainly can’t do much better than Captain Darling). Jackman however provides the film with many highlights as a cynical, drunken trainer who sees in Eddie a passion and a respect for the sport and the Olympics that he had never possessed himself as a young champion. There is also much style in the film’s visuals as well as a variety of enjoyable montages depicting Eddie’s training.
In spite of the standard, even formulaic, approach that the film applies towards its story I was still very rooting for Eddie in his journey. As implausibly childish as his character could be, his zeal and perseverance were still soundly felt. As transparently fabricated as some elements could be, the film was still able to capture the spirit of the underdog story that Eddie Edwards lived in an affective way. It isn’t a film that takes risks and that never surprises, but it also isn’t a film that feels tired or that falls flat. It is sentimental, it is clichéd and it is schmaltzy, but those who aren’t put off by those qualities could very well find it to be affectionate, charming and even inspirational. Eddie the Eagle is not going to break any boundaries the way that Eddie Edwards did, but for the right viewer it will prove to be an enjoyable feel-good British underdog movie.