The Work of an Errant Heel

This Sporting Life feels like two separate narratives that somehow find themselves inhabiting the same fictional universe, like short stories on facing pages whose characters crossed over somehow when the book was closed. Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is determined to become a star rugby player, not for fortune and fame, but to win the love of his landlady Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts). She however wants nothing to do with him, having never fully recovered from the loss of her husband in an industrial accident.

Either of these two stories would be enough for a single tale. Machin is like an unstoppable Juggernaut in pursuit of his goal who wouldn’t really know what to do with success if he found it. Hammond is so shattered by her husband’s death that it has become the singular defining aspect of her existence. The tension between the two, the unrelenting advances of Machin and the stone cold immovability of Hammond, proves for some particularly uncomfortable but suspenseful moments.

The film rightly dispenses with the cartoon drama of the playing field. What we do see of the game looks like something out of Paths of Glory. It quickly becomes clear that rugby is in many ways just a job for Machin, the means to get what he wants, and he’s not above a few dirty moves if it’ll get him some slim advantage.

Richard Harris is fantastic to watch: his single-minded Machin is not some stock brute. But he grows increasingly desperate as his success on the field is not mirrored by any kind of advancement in his relationship with Hammond. While you get the feeling that his most reliable way of dealing with the world is with a closed fist, he is also capable of kindness, loyalty, camaraderie and friendship. What often makes him seem repellent is the fact that his every move and thought is directed toward a single goal. When he is playing with Hammond’s two children there is a kind of desperation in his every interaction with them, the hope that it will eventually soften her resolve, that lends an undercurrent of threat to events that on the surface seem innocuous.

While the ending kinda tipped over into the way too symbolic for my taste, and the music score seemed a laughable mismatch, the drama itself is solid. Every time the protagonists ended up in a room together I found myself clenching my teeth in nervous anticipation. Well worth a look.

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