‘Downton Abbey’ creator back with soccer tale ‘The English Game’

The fates of a 19th-century cotton mill, two rival soccer teams and a troubled marriage are bound together in “The English Game,” a mild entertainment from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. Anglophiles frothing at the mouth for Lord Fellowes’ usual costume-drama eye candy may be disappointed, as the bulk of the story takes place in the grimy world of serving wenches, poorly lit taverns, muddy roads and grim cotton mills of Lancashire. Maggie Smith does not drop in for an acerbic cameo.

The year is 1879. The Old Etonians, a posh soccer team (called football in England), enjoy an unrivaled supremacy until the local cotton mill owner hires two Glaswegian football champs, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and Jimmy Love (James Harkness) to play for the Darwen team, composed of mill workers. The scrappy Suter strategizes so well on the field and in Darwen’s first match with the Etonians that his team nearly beats them.

This seems to be a story of class conflict, well contrasted in everything from the elegant mien of the Etonians to their sage and ivory uniforms. The Darwen men dress in dark striped shirts and appear quite a bit shorter than the patrician Etonians.

The Darwens’ hopes for a rematch are dashed when the Cotton Masters Guild decides to cut the workers’ wages to improve its profit margin. The townspeople decide to chip in to pay the team’s train fare to Eton for the rematch, but the Darwens lose when old Etonian captain Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) shadows Suter to such an extent that the Glaswegian can’t make any of his signature moves.

For the time being, the upper classes seem to have the upper hand. But further draconian measures on the part of the Cotton Masters Guild incite the mill workers to riot and put Kinnaird, a banker who sits on the board of the Guild, in real jeopardy. Poor Kinnaird would seem to have everything the mill hands could want: a manor house, a fab wardrobe and a gorgeous wife, Alma (Charlotte Hope). But he’s dull as a balance sheet and so clueless he keeps leaving his unhappy wife alone to run off to another meeting. “The English Game” adroitly allows the old boy a chance for enlightenment regarding the plight of the mill hands as well as an opportunity to repair his marriage, which has been nearly ruined by his neglect after Alma’s miscarriage of their first child.

As anyone who enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey” remembers, writing female characters has always been Fellowes’ strong point, so it’s a bit of a mystery why there are so many men in “The English Game.” They are either effete stuffed shirts or angry louts. The only male character who stands out is Suter, played with a simmering tension by the Scottish Guthrie. He’s not just the underdog here but a man having to make decisions that may disappoint his fellow footballers while benefiting his endangered family back home. The most finely drawn character is Alma, played with winning sympathy by Hope. While adhering to the social decorum of the times, in which a woman knows her place, she conveys her character’s loneliness, disappointments and flashes of anger with very simple gestures, glances and the like.

“The English Game” wants to propagate the widely held theory that athletic events can solve class issues, as the expected victory of the Darwens would prove. But in deftly portraying the callousness of the aristocracy and forecasting the futility of the mills, Fellowes can’t quite support that easy optimism. Unless you were born to the manor, as the Crawleys of “Downton Abbey” learned over time, life was often a struggle for most people. A couple of hours on the football field doesn’t really make anyone’s problems go away.