The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen

This most enjoyable film is based on the story of the Finnish boxer who was European Lightweight champion in 1959, and in 1962 fought for the World Featherweight title. If you expect the happiest day to be that of his title fight, you will be right. Though things are not always as they are planned.

From the moment Jerkko Lahti as Olli approaches the camera at the beginning of the film, you know you’re on his side. A pretty good lookalike for the real Olli, Lahti plays him as a modest figure of grace and decency, a simple man grounded among simple people. In 1962 the Sixties hadn’t really begun anywhere, certainly not in Finland. Black and white conveys that old-fashioned time, when folk went to weddings on bicycles and PR was a stumbling, hit and miss affair. The fallible mastermind behind the title fight is Olli’s manager Elis (a mournful hawk-faced Eero Milonoff), who is up for the big time, organising fashion shoots and getting a little film company to follow the would-be champ in his preparation for the big match. Olli’s modest, realistic assessment about his chances doesn’t go down very well, and when during the last days of his preparation he almost falls apart, it’s as well the cameras aren’t looking too hard. It’s his weight, which is just too much naturally for his Featherweight status (there’s a very funny whispered discussion on the mystery of the definition of the various weights, during a small-town marriage service). But that’s not the only thing that’s discombobulating him – he’s in love, baffled and amazed by it, with a beautiful but wholesome, level-headed girl in homemade jumpers who doesn’t quite conform to the would-be glamour of the suave image Elis is trying to put around.

With its bitter sweet but truly happy ending, its tale of the superiority of authenticity over spin and love over success, and the fact that it’s a boxing film, that haven of easy blokeish sentimentality, it may sound like a bagful of clichés, but with the lovely cinematography (by JP Passi), the amazing faces, the steady pace of normal lives and the gritty realism, bearing something of the ingrained lived-in look of Kaurismäki, but still able to rise to dreamy romance, it’s actually a rare film about the strength of nice, well-meaning people and the value of ordinary life. And it’s one of the very few boxing films that I have actually liked. Forget La La Land, this is the feel-good film of the year.

Seen April 2017, Tyneside Cinema

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