The Pass is one of those movies that really shouldn’t work. While it was acclaimed on stage, you would initially think that would be the only place it would succeed. It’s setup doesn’t immediately seem to lend itself to being opened up for cinema, as it by necessity it retains a very stark three-act structure, only has four speaking roles, and just three locations. However, despite that, it’s a really good film.
The movie opens in a Romanian hotel room, where two young footballers, Jason (Russell Tovey – who also originated the role on stage) and Ade (Arinzé Kene) are preparing for what could be a career-making game the next day. While they chat, bond, and perhaps subconsciously compete for status – both just in their underwear – they also slowly flirt towards something more intimate. There may be a lot of ‘lad’s talk’ about banging chicks and hot women, but that increasingly covers their true feelings.
The next ‘act’ jumps four years forwards, by which time Jason has become one of the top soccer players in the world. He arrives home late at night with a young woman (Lisa McGrillis) that he’s been watching at a pole-dancing club. As they flirt and dance their way towards a one-night stand, one or both may have an ulterior motive. The final part moves ahead another five years, by which time Jason is coming towards the end of his professional career. He’s invited Ade, who’s now a plumber, to come and see him, but Ade isn’t sure why. Nor is Ade sure why, despite being happy with his boyfriend, he dropped everything to go and visit a man who he once spent the night with, but who then abandoned him. However, he soon starts to see that despite the riches and fame, Jason has had to give up huge amounts to achieve that. He also has to wonder whether, if he’d been the one who made it to the top of the game, he’d have done the same thing.
Films about people deep in the closet aren’t exactly new, but The Pass works thanks to smart direction and some great acting. It’s a truly phenomenal tour-de-force from Russell Tovey, who’s on-screen for the entire running time and does a tremendous job as a character who, in less assured hands, could have come across as pretty unpleasant. Jason is a man who can be cruel and manipulative, with a single-minded desire to be a top footballer no matter what or who he has to push aside to do that.
Being at the top isn’t just about playing well, it’s about reputation, status, and living a life that shows that – which in Jason’s mind at least, leaves absolutely no room to come out or even have a meaningful relationship with a man, in case it becomes public knowledge. As a result he will happily trample on people and use them, even if he destroys himself in the process. On the other side though, Tovey ensures there’s also something vulnerable and lost about Jason, to the point he is as much a victim of his ambition and the way his brain works as he is the beneficiary of it.
A man who achieves all his dreams, only to destroy himself emotionally in the process isn’t exactly new (and to be fair, Jason isn’t totally destroyed), but The Pass gives it real shot in the arm. Even within its contained setup – or perhaps thanks to it – the film offers a fascinating character study, particularly as you can understand why Jason sees things the way he does.
Tovey is backed up by strong performances from Arinzé Kene as Ade, and Lisa McGrillis as the pole-dancer Jason entices back to his house. The only other speaking role is Nico Mirallegro, who’s also good as a young hotel employee who is overawed to be meeting Jason, but who finds himself in the middle of the reunion between the footballer and Ade, where he becomes a pawn who may be asked to do things he may not really want to.
Credit must also go to John Donnelly’s script, as without great writing something that on the surface seems so ‘stagey’ wouldn’t have a chance of working on screen. Interestingly, if you were going to compare The Pass to a sport, it wouldn’t be football, it would be boxing. People don’t so much talk to Jason as spar with him, as he scopes them out, works out what he wants and tries to figure out how to get it, only occasionally revealing that in reality he may not know what he really wants at all. And due to the way he is, there’s a sense of danger as Jason is often one step from doing something really bad, which adds a sense of tension to the movie.
It ensures that while the whole film takes place in only a few rooms, it still has pace and punch, with interesting characters and intriguing ideas about what it takes to be a top sportsman. Here, actually being good at a particular sport is only part of it, as it’s as much about handling reputation and using/manipulating the media. And as a result it’s about treating people as pawns in a giant game they may not even know they’re playing – especially if you feel like you’ve got something to hide.
Overall Verdict: A career-best performance from Russell Tovey, a sharp script and a smart handling of character and living in a gilded closet, ensure this is one of the best gay-themed movies of the year.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac