Film reviews: Fighting With My Family | The Hole in the Ground | Serenity

Fighting with My Family
Fighting with My Family
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Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden have all the right moves as siblings trying to make it in Stephen Merchant’s charming true story film Fighting With My Family, while star vehicle Serenity is a car crash for Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway

Fighting With My Family (12A) ***

The Hole in the Ground (15) ***

Serenity (15) **

Stephen Merchant proves more adept at drama than comedy with his directorial debut Fighting with My Family, an affectionately told story about outsiders finding their place in the world of professional wrestling. Based on a true story, the film stars Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden as Paige and Zak Knight, Norwich-based siblings who compete alongside their ex-con parents (played by Lena Headey and Nick Frost) on the low-rent British regional wrestling circuit, yet dream about one day joining the glitzy, cash-rich world of World Wrestling Entertainment – the US wrestling organisation that launched the career of one of this film’s producers, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Johnson also cameos as himself). That dream starts to become reality when the WWE decide to hold auditions in London and are impressed enough by the Knight family’s audition tapes to give both kids a shot at glory. Though Zak’s the one who’s planned his whole life around succeeding, it’s Paige – who only really got into wrestling to please her family – who makes the cut and is whisked off to Miami to train while her brother is left at home with his girlfriend, their new baby and little in the way of exciting prospects.

Merchant sets all this up with the sort of goofy Brit-com clichés we’ve seen dozens of times before, which at first makes the film seem unworthy of the co-creator, co-writer and co-director of The Office. Nevertheless, game performances from Pugh and especially Lowden help the film power through some of these more laugh-light early sequences and Merchant soon finds his groove as a director, largely by embracing all the well-practiced genre moves of the heartfelt underdog sports movie inherent in the real-life story. That professional wrestling is all scripted anyway just makes it more appropriate that Merchant doesn’t really deviate from what’s expected; instead he uses the formula to his advantage to sneak in little grace notes about class and failure, mining conflict from the diverging paths Zak and Paige start to take – with the former forced to confront the painful reality that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a star, and the latter having to come to terms with her own insecurities if she’s ever going to unleash the star quality buried deep within her.

In this respect the film has more in common with recent Netflix hit Glow than last year’s abysmal wrestling Brit-com Walk Like a Panther. And even though Merchant doesn’t have the narrative space to explore the story with the depth of a TV show, he’s generous enough to ensure the fringe characters feel rounded and real. (He also soundtracks a bar fight to Cliff Richard, so the film isn’t without those awkward, decidedly British moments of irony that Merchant has been so good at exploiting in the past.) The film is aided by a strong cast, ably led by Pugh and Lowden, with Vince Vaughn good as Paige’s WWE coach, Frost and Headey fun as their diamonds-in-the-rough parents, and Johnson none-more-Johnson as both the world’s biggest movie star and this curious sport’s biggest export.

Irish horror film The Hole in the Ground comes on like a fairly standard take on the old demon seed/changeling genre staple as a stressed-out single mum (Seána Kerslake) moves with her young son to a dilapidated country house only to see his personality change beyond all recognition after he gets lost in the nearby forest. Has whatever is at the bottom of the sinister woodland sinkhole that gives the film its title taken possession of eight-year-old Chris (James Quinn Markey)? Or is it driving his mother, Sarah, insane as she tries to cope with the hinted-at trauma she may have suffered at the hands of Chris’s father, whose likeness to the boy serves as a constant reminder of unhappier times. Co-writer/director Lee Cronin does a decent job of keeping things ambiguous, even as he’s pushing the film into more fantastical territory, and that prolonged sense of mystery helps sustain it through all the creaky jump scares and the over-cranked score.

Launching simultaneously in cinemas and on Sky Movies, the new Matthew McConaughey/Anne Hathaway movie Serenity begins as the sort of hilariously bad erotic thriller that used to get dumped straight to video, before morphing into the sort of hilariously contrived high-concept tech thriller that also used to get dumped straight to video. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a hunky fisherman prone – as old school McConaughey fans will be delighted to hear – to taking his top off a lot and cliff-diving naked.

Hathaway is the blonde femme fatale from his past who walks back into his life offering to pay him $10 million to kill her abusive husband (Jason Clarke). The obvious trashiness of this set up is almost funny, and come the mid-point twist, clearly deliberate. Unfortunately writer/director Steven Knight’s (Locke) determination to subvert expectations with a reality-blurring narrative flip isn’t so much mind-blowing as mind-numbingly stupid. Without wishing to ruin it for anyone who gets a kick out of misfiring star vehicles, the end result can best be described as a rubbish knock-off of Black Mirror made by someone who’s clearly never played a video game in their life. ■ - Alistair Harkness