The Beautiful Game: Bill Nighy’s feel-good Homeless World Cup drama is what football’s all about

Bill Nighy as manager Mal who takes his team to Rome
Bill Nighy as manager Mal who takes his team to Rome - Alfredo Falvo Photographer

Football’s infinite capacity to depress – ask any team on the brink of relegation – is not the side of our national sport that British cinema is ever likely to dwell on. But its capacity to inspire, to uplift, to get people, quite literally, off the streets? That’s what the Homeless World Cup, founded in 2001, was all about, and it’s what The Beautiful Game is all about.

Freely inspired by many stories from the past two decades of this initiative, Thea Sharrock’s feel-good footie drama has an unassailable generosity of spirit. As with any film to which the tag “well-meaning” might be applied, it also means there’s a hurdle of predictability to overcome. It uses some hoary devices to twist your arm, but resistance, eventually, is futile.

We start in London with ex-talent-scout Mal (a cheerleading Bill Nighy) moving the final pieces into place for sending England’s homeless squad to Rome, where they hope to beat the previous high-water mark of coming fourth. Mal’s chosen squad for the five-a-side tournament have a collective air of amateurish bumbling, until a stray loner called Vinny (Micheal Ward) catches his eye. Vinny’s fast and has flair, but there are two problems: he won’t admit to being unhoused, and even when he’s talked into coming, could hardly turn out to be less of a team player.

The backgrounds of the other lot are given featherweight sketches in Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script, which is more interested in using them as doltish stooges. One fool assumes they’ll be seeing the Eiffel Tower; one’s a kleptomaniac who gets on the plane with an armful of stolen duty free, and so on. Cal (a terrific Kit Young) has some sullen layers. Vinny’s meant to be sharing a room with the chatterbox Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), who’s a recovering heroin addict on methadone. Exit Vinny with zero sympathy, preferring to sleep on a park bench and keep himself firmly to himself.

As they advance through to the knockout phase in Rome, the film’s brisk editing chivvies them through. The games are crisply handled, even if you may lose count of how many times Nighy does a jubilant fist-pump from the bleachers. This is a performance fished from his back pocket – sprightly, making it look like a cinch.

The grit in the oyster is all Ward’s to supply. He’s resolutely convincing and physically able as a one-time football prodigy who got knocked back in his teens. Making Vinny such an unfriendly refusenik until a gallingly late stage is the best move in Boyce’s script.

Even if many a plot point feels mechanical, Boyce and Sharrock get away with it for one overriding reason: the star wattage coming off Ward is once-per-generation stuff. Whether he’s scowling in frustration, charging single-mindedly at goal, or cracking a reluctant grin, his talent jolts the whole film into life.

122 min. On Netflix from Friday March 29