From Downton Abbey lord Julian Fellowes comes The English Game, a Netflix miniseries chronicling the early days of organized football (soccer to us American dillywankers) in Britain. It arrives amidst a global pandemic, a time when fewer organized sports are being played worldwide than in the 19th century, so wrap your head around that irony. Of course, you know Fellowes, in addition to infecting the Earth with Abbeymania, won an Oscar for writing Gosford Park and is an actual honest-to-gawd member of the House of Lords (with a coat of arms and everything) — so let’s see if his little football story lives up to his considerable reputation.
Opening Shot: Some blokes in a patch of grass bustle and fimble over a leather ball.
The Gist: Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) is captain of the Old Etonians, a football crew consisting of aristocratic jerks who made up the Football Association rules and have won the championship three times. It’s 1879, and no working-class club has ever progressed to the finals — until now. Cut to Darwen, Lancashire: Poor street urchins wallop a ball made of sticks and moss in a cobblestone alley. A group of scrappy blue-collar mill workers is on the cusp of a trip to London to get demolished by the Old Etonians in the quarterfinals. The mill is run by James Walsh (Craig Parkinson), who shipped in a couple of Scottish ringers to bolster the Darwen team’s chances, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and Jimmy Love (James Harkness).
So the stage is set for the upper-crust rigidstiffs to face off against the lower-crust squagglebottoms. We get scenes of the stuffies donning their dinner cravats for seventy-bline courses served on narwhal-ivory china, and scenes of the grimies spending their hard-earneds down the poob, whooping and singing their troobles away. When they finally meet on the pitch, the uppish cummerbunds roll over the scrappy mustaches 5-nil in the first half, prompting Fergus to implement a speed-and-passing game to counter the Etonians’ roughmuscle strategy. Before you know it, it’s 5-5 at the end of regulation, an old woman shouting the score to working-class grimbles cheering on their Darwen grinders. They could play extra time, but Arthur evokes a rule he and his mates made up, forcing a rematch in a week’s time. This doesn’t sit well with Arthur’s pregnant wife Margaret (Charlotte Hope), who calls a spade a spade: It was an underhanded maneuver to prevent the Etonians from getting their arses booted by their social lessers, and now she’s worried what kind of values this dick-on-the-pitch will pass on to their children.
Back in Darwen, Jimmy and Fergus meet some Future Romantic Interests; James meets with fellow mill owners, and he’s the only one who dissents in a vote to cut wages for workers. Adding insult to injury, he cancels the trip to London for the rematch — but the fans pitch in so they can afford train tickets, because this team gave them Something To Believe In. So they choo-choo to London and proceed to get their yarbles walloped after the Etonians counter-strategize with very ungentlemanly pushy-shovey tactics. Margaret tut-tuts — then excuses herself from the gilded smorgasbord in the middle of Arthur’s victory speech. She begins to hemorrhage violently. Did her husband’s football vulgarity cause this? And in Darwen, a disappointed Fergus is told to buck up, because he’s Given the People Hope, and they’ll get ’em next year.
Our Take: This is a bunch of Cornwall cornbread, an assemblage of fusty slob/snob cliches dressed up in fancy culottes and sock garters. The visual period detail is sumptuous of course, but so far, the characters are wan silhouettes lost amongst verdant set dressing, and we can make a game out of predicting all the important dialogue (“Let the ball do the work!” “But they (gesture at the hardscrabble fans) need football too!”).
Or maybe you’re here for the HOT 19TH-CENTURY FOOTBALL ACTION. Be warned, the action is pedestrian, a bunch of chaps bumping into each other on a vibrantly lush field. The plot moves lickety-split, running over character development like an 18-wheeler to a wandering road-possum. It’s entertaining in a flimsy, forgettable way, giving us everything we’d anticipate expect from a period drama, and not much more.
Sex and Skin: A quick, stolen kiss, which in Victorian England would be PornHub fodder.
Parting Shot: The Darwen boys lift Fergus above them like a hero.
Sleeper Star: Niamh Walsh, playing Fergus’ probable love interest, a singer who busks for coins on the street, showed ample charisma in her brief introductory scene.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Fergus Suter, you and I are gonna make history,” Jimmy declares.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Maybe The English Game will find the audience cross-section that loves sports drama and tight-corset period pieces — and those people probably will be underwhelmed.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.