The Boys in the Boat really is the kind of film they don’t make anymore, says Dan Slevin.
While we don’t get nearly enough of George Clooney the actor these days – two leading roles and one unfortunate cameo in four years – he does seem to be having a good time in the director’s chair, even if the films he has been making haven’t been making much of a splash.
Suburbicon in 2017 didn’t get released in New Zealand, The Midnight Sky went straight to Netflix during the pandemic in 2021 and The Tender Bar (2021) also bypassed theatres to eventually land on Prime Video.
Bucking the trend ever-so-slightly is his latest as producer/director, The Boys in the Boat, an utterly amiable historical sports story that provides pleasures mostly through what it doesn’t do. There’s no cursing, it prioritises romance over sex, the heroes have no dark side and the politics contains nothing to disagree with. While I like to be challenged in a cinema, sometimes I appreciate not being challenged, and The Boys in the Boat delivers on that.
Based on the American bestselling history book of the same name, the film is the underdog story of the Washington State eight-man rowing crew in 1936 who, against the odds, went from utter rowing novices to the final of the Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Recruited from a ragtag bunch of undergraduates – many of whom were desperate for the scholarship and the security that the team would provide – the group are coached by taciturn Joel Edgerton who soon discovers that they are a stronger crew than his seniors and who risks humiliation for the school by promoting them to number one position.
The background is the Depression, still clinging on in the Pacific Northwest where unemployment and homelessness remains rife. Washington is also an unfancied school, punching above their weight against the Ivy Leagues with all their money and influence.
The film is most notable for the fact that it was mostly shot in England, with a largely British cast. Some of the faces look a little familiar – and very good-looking in a clean cut but sweaty sort of way – but most of the names are not.
We don’t often have space to praise supporting performances in these reviews but they were the ones that really stuck out for me, especially James Wolk as the assistant coach Tom Bolles and Hadley Robinson as Joyce Simdars, the love interest for the central character Joe Rantz (played by Callum Turner). She’s the one that makes their romance so appealing, even if she spends the climactic scenes of the film cheering alongside a radio.
Quietly satisfying, but also quite forgettable, The Boys in the Boat is a film that you can watch with multiple generations safe in the knowledge you won’t embarrass anybody..
The Boys in the Boat is rated M for offensive language and is playing in select cinemas across New Zealand.