It’s no mean feat for an LGBT Film Festival to reach its 30th anniversary, but BFI Flare has managed just that and opening its 2016 programme is The Pass, the debut feature film from Ben A. Williams. An adaptation of the John Donnelly play of the same name which played at the Royal Court in 2014, three of the four cast members return to the parts they played on stage – with Arinzé Kene subbing in for Gary Carr – and Donnelly remains onboard on screenplay duties (and possibly half-time oranges, who knows!).
Spread over a decade in which footballer Jason rises from academy young buck to full-time Premiership squad member to one of the most famous players in the world, The Pass looks at what such a journey might do to a young man, particularly one who is questioning his sexuality and to those who are left by the wayside. On the eve of a crucial game, Russell Tovey’s Jason and team-mate Ade, played by Kene, are going stir-crazy in a Romanian hotel room, both aware of how crucial the next 24 hours will be but unprepared for what the next 24 minutes will unleash as homoerotic horseplay becomes, well, pretty much homosexual.
The expressionistic touches of John Tiffany’s theatrical style have been replaced by the more direct approach of Ben A Williams’ direction and there’s something impressive in its unashamedly sexual gaze here – the film, as did the play, revels in its amount of shirtlessness. Both men remain in their underpants for this scene and Jason can barely restrain himself from ogling his pal at every opportunity, the camera often cutting Ade’s head off as it follows Jason’s gaze to the rippling torso and peachy posterior in front of him. The nervous tension is neatly undercut with laddish banter as they skirt around the danger zone(s) of the possibilities of their future, both professional and personal.
Cut to five years ahead, and then again five years more, and we see the result of achieving the dream, the price to be paid to live in and embrace the constant glare of contemporary celebrity. Each scene takes place in a hotel room and what was a necessity given the limitations on stage becomes even more claustrophobically intense on screen, Jason forever closing curtains on his closeted cocoons as superstar status means he can’t quite reach the satisfaction he craves in truly accepting his sexuality, or being allowed to accept it for that matter – now as in 2014 when the play was written, not a single professional footballer in the UK has come out.
The middle section of the film lacks a certain something, Lisa McGrillis’ underwritten but overplayed honey-trapper not translating well (I’ve a feeling she had more character development in the play) but the final sequence when Jason and Ade are reunited a decade after last seeing each other is electric. Tovey has rarely been better than in showing us all the pent-up frustrations of this man-child, petty and poignant in the same breath, punching with a crushing weight of devastation at the impossibility of his choices, amplified by Nico Mirallegro’s striking cameo as a barmy bellhop. Kene’s role may be less flashy but nonetheless still affecting as Ade’s entirely different life journey represents both everything and nothing that Jason wants.
So a pleasingly successful transfer of this story from stage to screen and one which loses none of its intensity and integrity, not to say that it certainly isn’t easy on the eye. I’m still undecided as to whether the final flashback – added for the film – is soppy (as per my esteemed colleague) or sweet, truth be told it isn’t really necessary but it shouldn’t detract from an accomplished debut from Williams and some truly fine work from Tovey and Kene.