Eddie the Eagle

April 29, 2016
Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman in 'Eddie the Eagle' (2016)
Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman in 'Eddie the Eagle' (2016)

Eddie the Eagle may be the year’s most shameless piece of feel-good filmmaking. Many viewers, myself included, usually feel pretty bad at the prospect of another feel-good film, but it would take a special kind of wowser to deny the entertainment value of this tale of glorious failure. What do I mean by a “feel-good” film? It’s a movie one could never imagine being remade in the style of Tarkovsky or Bergman.

Eddie the Eagle is based on the life of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who competed for Great Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, came last in everything and walked away a national hero.

Like so many films ‘based on a true story’ this movie is happy to improve on the facts. It’s hard to believe that Eddie Edwards was as much of a dork as he appears in Taron Edgerton’s spirited comic portrayal, because it takes more than determination to turn oneself into a ski jumper in one year. Eddie may not have been the cerebral type but he obviously had talent.

From his earliest years it was Eddie’s dream to represent his country in the Olympics, even though he was a sickly boy with big glasses and weak legs. Born in Cheltenham, the son of a plasterer, he spent his childhood far from the ski slopes. For the first part of the film we watch one sporting misadventure after another. The problem – as his father is quick to remind him – is that Eddie is not a natural athlete, and will never be good enough to compete at the highest level.

He finally hits upon skiing as a sport that offers very little competition in Britain. The bar is set low enough for Eddie to work his way into the Winter Olympics squad, only to have his father’s message reiterated by the Chairman of the British Olympics Committee, Dustin Targett (Tim McInnerny), who plays the stage villain in this story.

Seemingly doomed to a career in plastering, Eddie has one final inspiration when he discovers that the last time the British team fielded a ski jumper was 1929. To get to Calgary all he has to do is compete in the sport. He borrows his Dad’s van and sets sail for the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where he hopes to learn the ropes.

What he finds is a group of macho Norwegian jumpers who think he’s nuts; an amorous lady inn-keeper (Iris Berben) who gives him a part-time job but fails to excite any erotic impulses; and a former champion named Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) who now drives a snow plough and spends his days swigging from a hip flask.

Eddie sets about his self-education as a ski jumper. After managing the 15 metre ramp, he decides to go straight to the 40, in preparation for the 70 and the 90. He tries again and again, crashing every time, attracting the derision of the Norwegians and the incredulity of Bronson. Finally, impressed by Eddie’s spirit and feeling a natural attraction to the underdog, Bronson agrees to coach this enthusiastic but ungifted novice.

Even if this weren’t a vaguely true story, known to many people, it would be completely predictable. The strength of Dexter Fletcher’s film is that we never really care. The suspense is reignited every time Eddie gets to the top of the ski jump, and played out in the most spine-tingling manner.

We know that, regardless of every setback, Eddie will get to the Olympics and become a media sensation through his personality rather than his performances. Even though he finished last in every event, for many people Eddie was more of a hero than the steely Euro-professionals who took the medals.

It was the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team stole the show – a feat commemorated in the movie, Cool Runnings (1993). However, this was the last time the Winter Olympics would be dominated by charismatic failures. After 1988 the rules were changed to ensure only high achievers made it to the Games.

The abiding message is that Eddie, in his inspired amateurism, embodies the true spirit of the Olympics. It’s a concept that has acquired a good deal of bathos over the past decade, as the Games have become a multi-billion dollar business mired in corruption. To ensure we get the point the filmmakers treat us to a few salient quotations from Baron de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics.

Understatement is obviously not Fletcher’s forte. Almost every character in this movie is a cliché, especially Bronson, the fallen idol who “disrespected the sport” and brought about his own downfall. He is, however, a remarkable advertisement for the health-giving qualities of alcohol. Even though he never stops drinking he looks like he has just stepped out of the gym, and can still complete a 90-metre jump. Needless to say, Bronson is a fictional creation: an amalgam of two of Eddie’s coaches held together with a generous dash of poetic licence.

Despite these reservations, Eddie the Eagle is a pleasure from start to finish, which is more than I can say about many films with greater artistic pretentions. Who needs art when you can have fun?

Eddie the Eagle
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Sean Macauley & Simon Kelton,
Starring Taron Edgerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Iris Berben, Tim McInnery, Christopher Walken
UK/USA/Germany, rated PG, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th April, 2016.