True Blue

Daniel Topolski Johan Leysen

Daniel Topolski Johan Leysen

Donald Macdonald Dominic West

Michael Suarez Dylan Baker

Ruth Macdonald Geraldine Somerville

Dan Warren Josh Lucas

Rick Ross Brian McGovern

With: Ryan Bollman, Andrew Tees, Robert Bogue, Noah Huntley, Edward Atterton, Nicholas Rowe, Jonathan Cake, Ed Fox.

Recounting the turbulent run-up to the Oxford University Boat Race of 1987, “True Blue” turns an authentic tale of sporting triumph into waterlogged entertainment. While the race itself is rousingly filmed and supplies some belated emotional uplift, the plodding, repetitive preamble is deadened by uncharismatic characters and a sorry lack of dramatic tension. This visually polished Brit production, directed in pure journeyman fashion by Ferdinand Fairfax, looks more likely to sink than sail commercially.

A Miramax pickup in the U.S., the film will present major problems for American audiences given its portrayal of the Yank rowing team members as virtually interchangeable jocks who are selfish individual achievers and not team players. Brits, on the other hand, are depicted as demoralized but ultimately victorious underdogs.

Beginning with Oxford’s first humiliating loss to Cambridge in a decade, the story follows the efforts of team president Donald MacDonald (Dominic West) and coach Daniel Topolski (Johan Leysen) to ensure a win for the oarsmen in the following year’s contest. To facilitate this, American team member Rick Ross (Brian McGovern) returns from a trip home with five experienced trans-Atlantic recruits, including world champion Dan Warren (Josh Lucas). The arrogant U.S. contingent swiftly establishes its opposition to Topolski’s selection and training methods and to MacDonald’s leadership.

Making allies from among the Brit faction, they hint that the president is not up to standard asa rower and has made the team only because of his friendship with the coach. Tiffs and threatened resignations follow, and dissension is heightened when headstrong Ross is downgraded from the A team as punishment for his undisciplined behavior.

All semblance of harmony subsequently erodes in the ranks, and both the Cambridge team and the Oxford authorities dismiss the chances of MacDonald and his oarsmen, but their drive and gumption see them through.

Comparison with “Chariots of Fire” seems inevitable. But while the 1981 Hugh Hudson film focused on character and the emotional and psychological factors that fuel the competitive spirit, “True Blue” is merely a laborious recap of many months of training disputes, political infighting, momentary defeats and setbacks before the predictable final moment of glory.

This may have been enough to sustain the drama had the audience been given someone to root for, but Rupert Walters’ script neglects to develop a single character. West plays MacDonald as upstanding and altruistic, but he remains an uninteresting figure. His personal life is touched on in some colorless family scenes, a hint of money troubles and a friendship with a Jesuit priest (Dylan Baker) who rallies support from the team in one of the film’s most clumsily scripted scenes, but the character remains one-dimensional.

Topolski is equally vanilla despite constant assertions from other characters as to the man’s supposed dynamism. The rest of the rowers are like second-string GQ models.

A seasoned television director with some minor feature credits behind him, Fairfax’s approach to shaping the material into more than a small-screen vehicle begins and ends with shooting it in widescreen. Technical contributions are competent but uninspired. Only Stanislas Syrewicz’s music injects some energy. The real Topolski, who served as creative consultant on the pic and whose book was the basis for the screenplay, appears as the race umpire.

True Blue

(BRITISH)

Production: A Miramax Films (in U.S.)/Film Four Distribution (in U.K.) release of a Channel Four Films presentation in association with Booker Entertainment and the Arts Council of England of a Film and General/Rafford production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Clive Parsons, Davina Belling. Executive producer, Allan Scott. Directed by Ferdinand Fairfax. Screenplay, Rupert Walters, based on the book by Daniel Topolski, Patrick Robinson.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Brian Tufano; editor, Les Healey; music, Stanislas Syrewicz; production design, Alison Riva; art direction, Jane Tomblin; set decoration, Barbara Herman-Skelding; costume design, Delphine Roche-Gordon; sound (Dolby), Chris Munro; line producer, Al Burgess; assistant director, Gerry Gavigan; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venetian Nights), Sept. 4, 1996. Running time: 117 MIN.

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