I once forced some pals on a skiing holiday to spend an afternoon off the slopes watching Chalet Girl. Suffice it to say, I have a high tolerance for lowbrow ski films. So if saccharine tales about plucky Alpine underdogs really aren’t your thing you might want to give my views a miss — as you might Eddie the Eagle, a biopic so drenched in cheerful clichés about the British class system, the power of perseverance and cheap slapstick laughs, it is a kind of Downton Abbey on skis.
That said, it’s hard to remember an afternoon at the cinema I’ve enjoyed more in recent times (and it’s definitely better than Chalet Girl). Such enjoyable silliness, such easy laughter. Based on the true story of the most likable Olympic loser of all time, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, the film basks in the reflected glory of what Sebastian Coe (before the athletics scandals) called the ‘purity’ of sport. And like the London 2012 Games at which Coe made that speech, Eddie the Eagle will make some British audiences feel patriotism and pride for our oddball heritage. Although in its relentless optimism Eddie the Eagle definitely feels American (it opened at the Sundance Film Festival in January), its idiosyncratic identity is British through and through.
Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards was an unlikely Olympian. Strapped in leg braces for years as a child on account of his weak knees and with a plasterer for a dad, he did not possess your typical snow-sports pedigree. But Edwards had a dream and became a decent downhill skier. After narrowly missing out on qualification for the GB ski squad for the 1984 Winter Olympics, he decided to switch to the cheaper sport of ski jumping with the aim of qualifying for the 1988 Games in Calgary. Totally broke, he took odd jobs, slept in a Finnish mental hospital and at one point, unable to afford medical bills after breaking his jaw, simply bound it with a pillowcase and carried on.
Oddly, the film doesn’t include many of these well-known anecdotes and takes huge liberties with the truth, inventing a lifetime of animosity with a disapproving father (Eddie has said his father was in fact supportive throughout) and a fictional coach, Bronson (Hugh Jackman), a former American ski-jump champ turned disillusioned drunk, rescued from despondency by Eddie’s unwavering self-belief. The perfect antidote to Eddie’s nerdy, spectacled optimism, Bronson is all cool, abrasive brawn, knocking back Scotch for breakfast and lighting fags as he takes on a deadly 90ft jump wearing ill-fitting boots and an endless parade of tight T-shirts. Meanwhile his gormless protégé sips milk at après-ski parties, weightlifts tin cans to Hall and Oates’s ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ and snowploughs his way to glorious failure.
The whole thing is absurd, unbelievable, A-grade, A-Team silliness — usually a definite no-no for biopics. But Eddie the Eagle knows exactly what type of film it wants to be. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the man behind the unlikely 2013 hit Sunshine on Leith, a military musical featuring songs by The Proclaimers, this film too feels as if the characters might burst into song at any moment. Taron Egerton captures Eddie’s lovable grin and hapless mannerisms, only occasionally becoming unwatchably OTT. British stereotypes are in abundance, from Tim McInnerny’s posh, villainous Olympic Association chairman, trying to thwart Eddie’s dreams at every turn, to Jim Broadbent’s jolly punditry, to Keith Allen’s ‘I’m a simple plasterer, me’ Dad. Entertainment, not nuance, is the name of this game.
The film does not seriously engage with the controversy that surrounded Eddie’s participation in Calgary, when audiences and commentators were divided as to whether his cheerful ineptitude represented the original ethos of the Games (it’s the taking part that matters), or whether it made a mockery of the achievements of other competitors. It only addresses the issue insofar as it is abundantly clear which side it is on: Eddie’s. This is a movie that favours good novelty jumpers and jokes about naked Norwegians over serious analysis — but like the real Eddie’s ’88 antics, it makes for welcome comic relief among a slew of biopics that consider only the facts and never the fun.