The cast/crew bit: directed by David Blair, written by William Ivory, starring Matt Smith & Sam Hoare
The ten-word synopsis: Olympic drama based on a true story. It’s about sculling.
“Olympic Fever” may be the most contagious disease known to mankind. For a couple of weeks, once every four years, 90% of the population finds themselves plonked in front of a screen of some description, barely flinching, as they watch endless reels of sport. It’s like a mad athletic craving. Sometimes, simply watching the sport itself isn’t good enough for us, and our obsession must pour out into the rest of the world. We want to eat Olympic cereals for breakfast. We want to sleep in Olympic beds. We want to drive Olympic cars. Bert & Dickie exists to try and fill this kind of hole, for people who want to watch Olympic films.
A month ago we saw the release of the rather lovely Fast Girls in cinemas, but save for that and a re-release of the classic Chariots of Fire, the sporting drama has been a surprisingly dormant genre. Bert & Dickie is not as good as either of those films. It is, however, a perfectly functional Olympic drama if you’re looking for something to feed your apatite, provided you’ve already caught the Olympic bug. Whereas as the other two mentioned films are vessels, carrying Olympic Fever, Bert & Dickie is a parasite, feeding off those already ‘suffering’. There’s plenty of heart and soul in the BBCs’ drama, but something feels absent.
Based on the true story from 1948, Londons’ last Olympic games, The Doctor himself, Matt Smith, stars in the lead role. Bert Bushnell is a sculler. As he explains “I use two oars, a rower is a bloke who uses one”. While skinny oddboy Smith may not be the first person who comes to mind when you’re casting Olympic athletes, he sort of gets away with it by the end. Never do you think that he’s actually the best sculler we’ve got, but you do warm to his character, so you can’t ask for much more, even if it’s impossible to stop imagining him as The Doctor.
This seems to be a problem with Smith. Whereas Tennant and Eccleston have had no problem adapting to other roles, Matt Smith doesn’t seem to have much scope. Seeing as The Doctor is possibly the most multi-facited character on British television, he’s forced to use his entire range as he Doctor, and, hence, when he does any emotion at all, I find myself reduced to thinking of the Time Lord. There are moments in which Bert begins to talk quickly, and you can’t help but hope that the man in the German boat will turn out to be a giant squid from the planet Squiddle or something. Bert himself is portrayed by being as working class as possible, to contrast with the more middle class Dickie Burnell, played by Sam Hoare.
Hoare isn’t haunted by another role in this way, (Although there’s nothing to stop this character not being the same character as he played during his appearance as an extra in Captain America) but remains quite ambiguous. He’s fine. He’s quite posh, he’s quite big, he seems far more like an Olympic athlete than Matt Smith does. Dickie has a sort-of interesting relationship with his dad, who himself won an Olympic gold medal. Bert also has daddy troubles, although that subplot felt shoehorned in to some degree, as though to try and mirror Dickie, to try and empthasise the ‘Same but different’ class message being conveyed.
The key to this kind of film is to nail the ending. Get the pay-off right and any slip-ups prior to this are all forgiven. It was in this area that Fast Girls triumpthed, providing an upbeat ending that left me with a sole, joyous tear rolling down my cheek. Bert & Dickie gets very close to bungling it. We only actually see one race, with the director choosing to skip the first round. The semi-final is replaced by a terrific scene involving a television shop in Glasgow and Berts’ sweetheart. The final itself is… alright. We do actually see the sculling, and we do see the look on various characters faces, but it just didn’t feel very powerful. As I eluded to earlier, something feels absent. I can’t put my finger on it, but while it’s a decent ending, it’s not as strong a sprint finish as their fairly lackluster opening straights required in order to secure the gold.
Bert & Dickie is a fourth place finish. Just outside medal territory, but you should probably still be quite happy with it. It’s fine. It’s alright. The films’ stand-out feature is the fact that it reminded me how much I like Matt Smith as The Doctor, closely followed by the fact that it reminded me how much I liked Fast Girls. If you’re currently knee-deep in an uncontrollable Olympic Fever, then it’s probably worth watching once the actual sport dries up, to keep you occupied. However, otherwise? It shouldn’t take you too long to readapt to eating normal cereal for breakfast, sleeping in a normal bed or driving a normal car…
5 Moments of realising that literally every actor in Britain has at some stage been in Doctor Who out of 10