South London, City lights in the distance. The crepuscular gloom envelops a man felled by loss, drink and impending homelessness. Jimmy McCabe is losing his home as a number of Londoners now do, through building redevelopment schemes which gut neighbourhoods of their old communities. He has nowhere to go, and no loved ones. Yet this is a quietly exhilarating film, visually beautiful, and at times nerve-rackingly exciting.

Jimmy McCabe is played, beautifully, by Johnny Harris, an actor known for Snow White and the Huntsman, and for This is England ‘86. Harris also wrote Jawbone’s screenplay, and has said that though not autobiographical, the film is a personal one. Harris and his fictional character have boxing in common. Both were youth champions, and both come from the same South London neighbourhood.

When McCabe hits rock bottom, he returns to his local boxing gym. This becomes home. He hides there at night to sleep, and during the day his wish to return to the ring is tolerated with tough love by his mentor and father figure, William Carney (Ray Winstone). He can practice there, and attempt to rebuild his life. But there are conditions. One slip-up, one unlicensed fight, one drink, and he is out.

And here a Faustian pact emerges. McCabe’s daily sustained effort at survival is laborious. An unlicensed fight might help him soldier on and up. He meets in secret another old mentor figure, a boxing promoter, played by Ian McShane. It is compelling moment, an unsettling exchange where kindness and harshness interplay. McCabe is offered, almost tenderly, something which may be either a chance, or his destruction. Ian McShane here is entirely Faust’s Mephistopheles, something which, as Goethe wrote, is part of the power which always wills evil and always works good. There is the odd intimacy given by someone who is both a bit good, but also quite bad. If Jimmy takes this on, then it may be safer for him to box to lose, rather than to win. His adversary is known to be wild.

The pact is made and the fight for survival ramps up. McCabe trains hard, supervised by Eddie (Michael Smiley). The ensuing boxing match is among the greats of cinema. This is not the intense voyeurism of boxing film classics but something very different, a visual reinvention of the experience of being in the thick of the blows. There are echoes of the kinetic energy seen in Wong Kar Wai’s collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in a very different colour palette, muted. Thomas Napper’s direction, and Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography hit here something powerful.

Paul Weller’s soundtrack adds a richly textured layer to the film’s mood, disquiet interspersed with contemplative moments. Familiar names such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane, and the boxing and redemption themes, are wrought here afresh. The Faustian pact belongs more to Goethe’s version than Marlowe’s: the darkness dissipates. The film’s opening words, an old testament reference to Samson, come true. ‘The victory was not in the arm, not in the weapon, but in the spirit’. This film packs a punch in an unsentimental, un-manipulative way, and which lands somewhere good.

This is an exciting British film, an exceptional boxing film, and well worth catching. Jawbone is now available on Netflix.

Director: Thomas Napper
Writer: Johnny Harris
Producer: Michael Elliott
Cinematography: Tat Radcliffe
Music: Paul Weller
Cast: Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Michael Smiley

First published on Screenwords, September 2017