On the face of it, “Journeyman” seems a misnomer of a title for a film about a championship boxer who faces the most grueling challenge of his life after defending his world title at the denouement of his career. A scrappy, up-from-nothing underdog drama it is not. As Paddy Considine’s sophomore directorial effort progresses, however, the title takes on a more literal application: This is very much a film about, wait for it, a man on a journey.
If that sounds well-meaningly corny, well, so to an extent is “Journeyman.” Not close to the stark, bruising experience of Considine’s debut “Tyrannosaur,” this story of a fighter battling the extreme, personality-altering effects of concussion after his final turn in the ring is a film of somewhat soapier suffering, stirring but not always credible in its examination of a marriage and a masculine identity both shattered by a misplaced strike. If Considine doesn’t seem to know his characters as intimately as he did in his debut, however, he still knows acting inside out. It’s his unguarded conviction in the lead — and that of a superb Jodie Whittaker as his devoted but devastated wife — that finally lands “Journeyman” a victory on points, if not quite a knockout blow.
Whittaker’s surging star status as TV’s next Doctor Who lends additional marquee value to “Journeyman,” now finally opening in British cinemas after a quiet domestic festival debut last fall. Yet while the film has a more mainstream, sentimental sensibility than “Tyrannosaur” — deviating from expected boxing-drama form in some ways, but hewing close to a traditional triumph-over-adversity arc — it’s likely to leave less of a mark internationally than its Sundance-premiered, BAFTA-winning predecessor. Where Considine’s debut traded in earthy, gutsy authenticity, there’s something not fully drawn about “Journeyman’s” evocation of a national sporting scene, something a little too sealed and scripted about its domestic melodrama.
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“This will be a life-changer for you,” spits cocky up-and-comer Andre Bryte (the impressive Anthony Welsh) at soon-retiring pugilist Matty Burton (Considine) — a reigning world champion thanks to an opponent’s withdrawal — as he prepares to challenge Matty for his title. The veteran ekes out a narrow victory, but with boldfaced irony, Andre’s trash-talking prophecy proves true: A critical head injury sustained in the match requires brain surgery, leaving the champ with severely impaired mental and motor functions. It’s a tragic end to a noble career, but for his doting wife Emma (Whittaker), it’s merely the beginning of a challenging new life together — one that now essentially requires her to mother both the violently inarticulate, exasperated Matty and their infant daughter.
“Journeyman” is at its most intense and involving when concentrated on a marriage in punch-drunk crisis, as Emma increasingly struggles to cope with a husband who has become a stranger to her and himself alike — and their uninvitingly spartan, modern McMansion becomes a veritable deathtrap of sharp corners and on-edge emotions. Considine plunges with tense, typical commitment into the agitated physical and verbal tics of a man who seems at once locked into and out of his own mind.
Whittaker has no less difficult an assignment as a woman exhausted by the challenges of maintaining a stable, nurturing presence while tamping down an inner scream of grief for her vanished husband. She plays it with wrenching, unfussy force — so much so that “Journeyman” loses its way when the film’s center shifts to the less compelling matter of repairing relations with Matty’s estranged professional brethren. Somewhat underpopulated throughout in terms of supporting characters, the film never plausibly accounts for the fact that Matty and Emma are essentially stranded in their plight: Friends and family seem absent at the will of the script alone.
As Whittaker drops from view for much of the film’s latter half, then, “Journeyman” enters its own unfocused daze. But it finds dewy-eyed catharsis eventually, scored to the misty Nick Cave ballad “Into My Arms” to boot: It can hardly fail to hit you where it hurts, even as you sense some more subtle, searching dramatic opportunities have been passed by. In interviews, Considine has been candid about his disappointment over his sophomore feature’s trail of festival rejections and its muted reception relative to that of his dream debut; in a now-deleted Instagram post, he stated he was “done making films.” One can only hope that was a rash outburst: Visually perfunctory and narratively flawed, “Journeyman” loses a couple of rounds here and there, but shows its soul when it counts, and isn’t ashamed to let it bleed.