BFI Southbank's LGBT film festival Flare kicked off in fine style last night with The Pass, a sharp and richly emotional drama about a closeted Premier League footballer that's centred around a knockout performance from Russell Tovey.
Any play making the transition to the big screen faces the challenge of how to expand beyond the boundaries of the stage and successfully inhabit the cinematic space. With just a handful of characters whose encounters occur in a series of hotel rooms, The Pass faces more obstacles than most productions that have taken this route, and it never quite manages to shake off that sense of staginess. However, the key virtues of John Donnelly's play have survived the process of adaptation intact, namely Donnelly's sharp writing, which serves up gripping and emotionally rich drama laced with witty dialogue, and a tremendous lead performance by Russell Tovey.
He plays Jason, a professional footballer whose career we follow over the course of a decade. Structured in three acts, The Pass opens in a Romanian hotel room where Jason and his roommate Ade (Arinze Kene) are preparing for a Champions League tie, the pair having come up through the academy together and now finding themselves on the fringes of the first team. Clad only in their underpants, Jason and Ade spend much of this sequence engaging in sexually explicit banter and increasingly physical horseplay, and it's clear to us that there's something else going on under all of this bravado and performative sexuality, even if neither man dares acknowledge it.
Director Ben A. Williams may not be able to do much with this material cinematically, but he gives both actors the space they need to give natural, engaging performances and generate a tangible chemistry, and he also succeeds in developing and sustaining a compelling tension in this opening scene that subsequently underscores all three parts of the film.
Each act gives a different perspective on Jason. When we meet him again five years later, as he enjoys a late-night rendezvous with a dancer (the terrific Lisa McGrillis, who, like Tovey, also played this role on stage). He's at the peak of his career but the pressures of controlling his image in the public eye are beginning to take their toll. Jump five years further ahead to Jason and Ade reunited, and the simmering tension has begun to boil over, as their encounter delves into the unspoken emotions, anger and regrets that have festered for over a decade.
This final act is where Tovey's performance really takes off. Jason is selfish, arrogant and often cruel, a product of the environment he has grown up in, but Tovey also expresses a powerful sense of his character's inner turmoil and a deep vulnerability that draws us towards him even as he behaves in a loathsome way.
Has the world of professional football changed at all in the decades that have passed since Justin Fashanu? Homosexuality in the sport remains almost non-existent. The Pass invites us to wonder how many players are currently languishing in Jason's situation: living every boy's dream and enjoying all the trappings of fame, but filled with sadness and self-loathing after a life spent hiding who they really are.
The Pass screened at Flare, the BFI's LGBT film festival, which ran from 16-27 March