Matty Burton (Considine) is the current Middleweight champion but he’s known more as a boxer who can take punishment rather than dish it out. While successfully defending his title, Matty suffers brain damage: he has to learn how to speak again, is prone to outbursts of violence, has memory lapses, etc. It’s all too much for wife Emma (Whittaker) but she does what she can to help him through his days. However, when an irritated Matty puts their crying baby in the washing machine, Emma has no option but to flee the house, leaving the confused and heartbroken Matty to fend for himself…
Journeyman is a safer outing than Considine’s directorial debut, 2011’s unrelentingly grim Tyrannosaur. It’s strong and steady but one wishes Considine, who also wrote the script, would take more risks with the material. One if the glaring issues is that the story removes the always-impressive Whittaker for a large chunk of the running time, leaving the bulk of the drama to Considine as he reconciles with his friends (Popplewell among them) and attempt stand on his own two feet again. While it remains engrossing as Considine rebuilds his life, with Popplewell and rival boxer Welsh turning in some fine performances in the little scenes they have, it doesn’t come up with anything to fill in for Whittaker’s absence. An argument could be made that it should have been both their stories.
But it’s heartfelt stuff and tears down the tough guy attitude that dominates boxing. The guilt Popplewell feels about abandoning his friend because he doesn’t know how to deal with it is palpable, and there’s a wonderful scene when a sheepish Welsh, the brash opponent in the bout that caused Matty’s brain damage, turns up at his door to apologise.
Considine is wonderful, as per. He doesn’t overcook Matty’s physical and mental problems; bar the slow head-butting of a window because he messed up making a cup of tea, which is a bit much, Considine’s little tics and nuances (he smacks his lips before talking, his thumb fiddles with his chin) allows the audience to move inside his head. And we can feel his confusion and frustration, as he’s fully aware of the man he is now, the man he once was and the man he may never be again. A phone conversation with Whittaker where he, as he tries to get sense of his mangled thoughts and feelings, pleads for her to come home is as moving as anything you’ll see this year.