The Pass (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, January 2017

Review: In the ninth book of Homer’s Iliad, the great Greek hero Achilles – homosexual in some versions of the myth, but not in Homer’s – reveals that he has been given a choice between two destinies: a short life with everlasting glory, or a long life of anonymity. In The Pass, Jason (Russell Tovey) faces a version of this dilemma updated to a modern age where footballers are the new heroes – and where his fame will be won and his name made in return not so much for a short life as for an empty one.

The film’s title alludes to an event that never takes place, whether on screen or off. Jason and Ade (Arinze Kene) have been at a football academy since they were seven or eight years old, but when, as young adults, they finally get to play their first competition game (in Bucharest), Jason chooses to go for a goal himself instead of passing the ball to Ade, and so secures his destiny as a professional footballer and celebrity, even as Ade, in fact the better player of the two, is passed over for a place on the team, and eventually settles down to life as a plumber. Adapted by John Donnelly from his own 2014 play (with several cast members from the original Royal Court Theatre production reprising their rôles), The Pass is a three-act drama, set over ten years (like the Trojan War) of Jason’s rise and parallel fall, and confined entirely to the hotel rooms where Jason hides out along the way.

Accordingly, although Jason’s public persona and footballing prowess are certainly talked about, they are never actually shown, while his private life and sexual identity come to the fore. If the (non-)pass of the title that propelled Jason to stardom remains hidden from the viewer, a different ‘seminal’ event from his life, unfolding the night before his first big game, is portrayed (eventually) in full, after Jason and Ade’s clowning about in their underwear and exchanging innuendo-tinged ‘banter’ lead to Jason making a pass of a rather different kind – and then spending the next decade struggling to cover up who he really is and to ‘pass’ as heterosexual (via an unhappy marriage, and a fabricated sex tape with Lisa McGrillis’ pole dancer Lyndsey), even as Ade enjoys the life – more quiet but less closeted – that Jason might have had.

“You got a story you want to keep out of the papers, then you’ve got to find another story,” Jason tells Ade, explaining how a married teammate gets away with his serial adultery. Jason’s great tragedy is that, in his thirst for fame and success, he almost believes the legend – and the lie – that he has been living. His eventual downfall, like Achilles’, is a leg injury – but even if Jason survives this, he has already been dead for years, and faces a future of self-betrayal and desperate loneliness. For in denying Ade that pass, Jason was also denying himself. Intimate to the point of claustrophobia, but also tense and tender, director Ben A. Williams’ feature debut captures a life of own goals, lived behind closed curtains.

Synopsis: 2006, Bucharest. On the night before their first competition game, 17-year-old footballers Jason and Ade drink, engage in innuendo-laced banter and homosocial horseplay while parading around their hotel room in their underwear. When Jason covers himself in Nutella ‘blackface’, Ade is at first offended, before covering his own face in shaving cream. As they wrestle, Jason notices that Ade has a hard-on. Jason embraces Ade, and then kisses him passionately.

2011, London. Now a successful football star and married with children, Jason brings back pole dancer Lyndsey to his hotel room. Lyndsey is surprised to learn that Jason already knows that she is planning to make a secret video recording of their sexual escapades. Jason reveals that the video is a decoy for the media, to prevent stories of his homosexual affairs getting out. Both agree to play their parts for the camera.

2016, Manchester. Pill-popping Jason has left his family, and moved alone into a hotel with a knee injury. He invites Ade, now openly gay and a plumber, ostensibly for a quote. They discuss how Jason had failed to pass the ball to Ade 10 years ago, ending Ade’s footballing hopes. After bellhop Harry briefly joins the party and is humiliated, Jason’s sense of superiority crumbles as he realises that Ade has moved on while he cannot.

© Anton Bitel