There is a certain class of British film — for which John Boorman‘s “Hope and Glory” is perhaps the prototype — which follows an adolescent boy’s coming of age during a notable or sentimentality-laced period of twentieth-century English history. Invariably in such films, there is a female object of incipient pubescent desire; a belligerent older brother who usurps most of the family’s attention; and a redemptive father figure through whom the protagonist learns to stiffen his upper lip and be an Englishman. More often than not, the garden shed is a focal point of action.
All of these apply to Paul Weiland‘s autobiographical film “Sixty-Six,” which takes place during the throes of 1966 World Cup mayhem, which culminated in England’s (somewhat unlikely) championship on their home turf. But then many, if not all of these traits of the English-boy bildungsroman subgenre also apply to a host of other recent films, including Shane Meadows‘s appreciably more complex “This Is England” and Hammer & Tong’s nimbler “Son of Rambow,” which mine their nostalgia from the late Seventies and mid Eighties, respectively.
What sets Weiland’s film apart, however marginally, is its setting in North London’s grey and pleasant Jewish community, where our protagonist Bernie Rubens (introducing himself in voiceover, another subgenre requisite) is preparing for his bar mitzvah. The son of the adoring Esther (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and Manny, an OCD paranoiac green grocer, Bernie bears the brunt of his brother’s wanton abuse and his parents’ neglect even as he strategizes (from the garden shed) a rite of passage that will finally garner him the attention he lacks at home. As the film’s title and milieu hint, however, these plans run afoul of the vicissitudes of FIFA when Bernie’s bar mitzvah is mistakenly scheduled to coincide with the World Cup Final–and therefore England’s improbable victory.
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Like all such films, there is a deep-seated sense of traditional British underdoggedness throughout “Sixty-Six,” but here it’s not so much in the young protagonist (though newcomer Gregg Sulkin is a winning presence in the film) but in his father, played by the ubiquitous Eddie Marsan.
Since his appearance as Reg in Mike Leigh‘s “Vera Drake,” Marsan has become an overworked, but always welcome, character actor, turning up as everything from a salivating loony in “The New World” to a shifty informer in “Miami Vice.” Marsan’s performance as Bernie’s (and presumably Weiland’s) father here glues the film together, making its rather trite message about overcoming impossible odds (just like Alf Ramsey’s squad!) a deeper and rather more poignant story about personal failure. Before the film’s perfunctorily redemptive denouement, Marsan crafts a nearly heartbreaking character, eclipsed by his more charming and less dour brother, hobbled by his own self-defeating quirks, and stubbornly proud even at his emotional and financial nadir.
For the most part, however, “Sixty-Six” cleaves too closely to the pattern set out by more original films with similar subject matter. Its obvious distinctions of time and place come through in clever details — like a blind rabbi and some wonderful archival footage of the Cup final at Wembley Stadium — but these don’t seem to serve Weiland’s autobiography so much as situate it into a familiar cinematic formula. There’s a jovial score by the Divine Comedy’s Joby Talbot (who also scored “Son of Rambow”) and a great supporting cast — including Catherine Tate (as an aunt whose single character trait is her bad cooking) and Stephen Rea (as a cuckolded asthma specialist), both woefully underused — but even these touches largely fail to keep the film’s plodding life lessons about keeping one’s chin up and never giving up hope from seeming off-pitch.