As sporting movies go you may be hard pressed to find many that involve the game of lawn bowling, let alone any centered entirely on the esoteric diversion. It may strike us as being a rather British form of recreation in a decidedly British movie, but “Blackball” addresses the fact that even in England the game is enduring waning popularity. So why even feature a pastime fewer people care about? The hope of director Mel Smith is to mine the sport for humor, and that hope rests on the shoulders of British television comedian Paul Kaye.
The setting is the formerly pastoral seaside town of Torquay, and its extremely regimented Bowling club. The fixture at the club is Ray Speight, gifted bowler and club champion for 20 years, and a man lacking the conviction to take his skills to the national level. Beyond the manicured lawns and starched traditions is the run down section of town where paper-hanger Cliff Starkey (Kaye) plies his skills as a bowls prodigy, throwing in the mud and weeds on the wrong side of the tracks, looking slovenly and behaving like Sid Vicious on a putting green. While Speight is the recognized king of his little realm the fact that he never had the guts to test himself against a bigger field comes to the fore with Cliff’s appearance, not only threatens his reign at the club but also his hold on patrician delusions.
After beating Ray for the club trophy Cliff has his sights on playing in Britain’s championship, which Speight never had the nerve to do, and along the way Cliff ridicules Speight in a way that encourages the man to ban Cliff from the sport. Also at this time Cliff begins to attract the attention of a local teacher named Carrie, although I’m not too clear what she may see in a vulgar, disheveled laborer who is gifted at a sport played by nobody. That she is the daughter of Cliff’s rival is the first of many clichés trotted out that hinder the second half of the movie.
As Cliff is about to make a name for himself in the sport he discovers the ban against him from playing, but at the same time an enormous amount of attention has begun to focus on the bad boy of bowling. He becomes a media darling and attracts the attention of an American sportswear executive named Rick, (Vince Vaughn in a humorous character role) who becomes Cliff’s agent. Pressure is exerted on Speight to allow the ruffian of the game access to the English finals which leads to an extended and predictable sporting finale.
The first half of the film is rather well done, with a combination of humor and acting to draw your interest. What is also effective is the way parallels are drawn illustrating the gentle downslide of once prestigious concepts. The obsolescence of Ray Speight mirrors the apathy his sport receives and even the tarnish on the once pastoral resort town where he resides. The problem is with the second half as it slides into contrived drama and by-the-book plot lines. If the original premise had been extended and some of the humor carried through it could easily have been a winning movie.
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