‘The Beautiful Game’ Review: Bill Nighy Brings Heart And Soul To Inspiring Film Focused On Second Chances For Soccer Team Of Homeless Players

Coming off a well-deserved first-ever Oscar nomination, Bill Nighy has a new worthwhile movie to add to his highly impressive filmography. The Beautiful Game is, on its surface, another well-worn story of a ragtag team of misfits coming together for validation not just in their football (i.e. soccer) skills but, more importantly, in their lives. And even though we have seen countless underdog stories like this one set on a playing field, we actually haven’t seen one quite like this in terms of the welcome spotlight it puts on the homeless population among us. The timing is particularly pertinent as many major cities seem to a war going on with the homeless, a complete lack of empathy toward what gets a person to this point in life and a solution for lifting them out of it.

The Beautiful Game is not focused on the politics of their lot in life, but rather using athletic skills and a little hope to take them off the streets and into the global eye as part of the Homeless World Cup. It’s a sporting event that takes place nearly every year since being founded in 2003 and so far has helped 1.2 million homeless people see some possible light by way of participation in this universal street soccer event.

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The setting for this one is Rome, and at its center is a focus on the English team, a spirited if somewhat disparate and oddball bunch chosen for this unusual event, a Special Olympics of a very different stripe. Bringing them together is grieving widower Mal (Nighy), who has a successful background in the sport but now devotes his life to scouting potential team members for each annual competition (you only get to do this once).

As the date for going to Rome approaches, he spots a real raw striker named Vinny (Micheal Ward), who has worked his way into a pickup game, and Mal immediately goes about trying to convince him to join this year’s Homeless World Cup team, to which Vinny unequivocally reacts negatively by swearing he is not homeless and not interested. Persistent Mal, however, follows Vinny to his car and confronts him as clearly the young man is living out of his auto. But after a visit with his ex and his daughter, Vinny realizes that maybe this is an opportunity he should take, so he reluctantly goes on to join the rest of the team.

In Rome we meet the various team members and see each is a totally different individual to whom life has thrown a curveball, so why not kick it? Vinny finds his roommate is Nathan (a terrific Calllum Scott Howells), a likable and enthusiastic guy who we will learn could not beat his heroin addiction unless he is on his meds. Vinny demonstrates his aloof and sour manner in dealing with Nathan — and everyone else, for that matter, as he feels he really doesn’t belong with this group even after being royally welcomed by them due to his obvious talents, if not his actual background of which they have no idea.

Aldan (Robin Nazari), Cal (Kit Young), Jason (Sheyi Cole) and others each have their own hangups and problems, but this is a team you want to root for. Mal makes sure they get their chance to shine right from their first game against South Africa, which gives them a jump-start of 3 points towards the cup simply because the team missed their connection and didn’t show. There will, of course, be more who actually do, like Japan, and we see homelessness is a problem experienced everywhere on the planet, but humanity is the common denominator.

Valeria Golino is very fine as the spirited executive in charge of the operation as well as its No. 1 cheerleader. Nighy could not be better or more appealing here, while Ward (The Old Guard) has a tough task but is excellent in navigating the often unlikable Vinny, a man with loads of potential who never landed a goal in life.

Colin Farrell was a producer and narrator for the 2008 feature documentary, Kicking It, that inspired this film to some degree, and he and his sister Claudine Farrell are among the producers of this one too. Among the large cast are actual Homeless World Cup players taking on non-speaking roles, a nice touch and opportunity provided by the filmmakers. Thea Sharrock (Me Before You, Wicked Little Letters) directs with heart but never overwhelms the film with the usual sentimental tropes of the genre. On the heels of Taika Waititi’s 2023 Next Goal Wins, about a losing ragtag Samoan soccer team, this is another admirable addition to a subgenre that relies heavily on the appeal of its cast. The Beautiful Game scores big time in that regard.

Title: The Beautiful Game
Distributor: Netflix
Release date: March 29, 2024 (streaming)
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cast: Bill Nighy, Micheal Ward, Callum Scott Howells, Kit Young, Tom Vaughan, Sheyi Cole, Robin Nazari, Valeria Golino, Cristina Rodlo
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr, 5 min

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