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In from the Side / Seitenspiel

Director: Matt Carter (UK). Year of Release: 2022

The bar after a local rugby game. The visiting captain stands up and makes a speech. He announces the player of the game as being, not for the first time, Mark. Mark is pretty and has a beard, which would be a little less confusing if most of the team were not pretty men with beards. The liability of the day is named as Pinky, who managed to tackle one of his own players. But the main reason that Pinky is being singled out is because he is fat, clean shaven and not so pretty as the others.

As is apparently traditional at this sort of thing, Mark and Pinky have a drink off, where they each down a pint while the other players sing the club song. It’s close, but Mark just about wins. Pinky then throws up his drink back into his glass, and proceeds to drink it one more time. When some reviewers praise the film for not conforming to the usual macho rugby stereotypes, I’m not sure that it’s this scene that they have in mind.

There is something different about Mark and Pinky’s team though, as all the players are gay men. But this does not mean that it escapes tired rugger clichés. It’s not just the endless drinking games and the virtual absence of any female characters. There’s also objectification of “fit” opponents and refs, which is only slightly more accepatable because they are of the same sex. The Stags “B” team does provide a community for its players, but excludes anyone else.

It is also most definitely a rugby union team, and not just because there are too many players and some silly rules. If you think of rugby league films from This Sporting Life to Up and Under, there is always an undercurrent of poor men battling for their existence. In this film, Mark lives in a penthouse flat owned by his partner and spends Christmas skiing with his parents. When the team gets together there is more than a hint of public school braying. They are not People Like Uz.

Fairly early on in the film, Mark spends a drunken evening with Warren, a member of the Stags “A” team. As even the “B” team players think that the “A” players are up themselves, you can imagine how insufferable they are. But Warren seems to be almost loveable, being a pretty man with a beard (who’d have thought it?) The trouble is that, like Mark, he already has a partner – another member of the “A” team.

In from the Side lasts 2¼ hours, which is way too long for most films, and certainly for one with so little plot. It would have been a hell of a lot shorter if either Mark or Warren were capable of taking a decision. Instead, they look alternately sad and perplexed that seeing someone on the side is making their everyday life more complicated, because they are not prepared to either break their existing relationship or stop their developing affair.

All this means that the middle of the film, which must last at least an hour, merely consists of repeated shots of Mark and Warren sleeping together, Mark and Warren in bed the morning after, and Mark and Warren looking guilty wondering if there is anything they could do to get themselves out of their unbearable situation. You know, like either deciding which relationship they prefer or accepting that they’re ok with the current polygamous set up.

While all this is going on, there’s a vague subplot about the rugby team being a community which brings together the outcasts of society. This could be very enlightening, given the ongoing exclusion of LGBT people from society. The problem is that although the film may like gay men in principle, it doesn’t like any of them enough to give them any discernable characteristics. We just see Mark and Warren, and a bunch of indistinguishable pretty bearded men in the background.

We do make one excursion, as Mark invites Warren to go skiing with his parents. There was much hilarity in some corners of tonight’s auditorium because Mark’s mother flirts with Warren, then later tells Mark about his father’s old affairs. Because old people being sexual is funny, right? Even when most of the sexuality that is being discussed is when they were young people. And a grey haired woman coming on to a pretty young bearded gay man is just hilarious.

You may have already gathered that I wasn’t bowled over by In from the Side. It appears to aspire to the melodrama of a cheap soap opera, and asks us to feel sympathy for characters who appear to be incapable of taking a moral decision of their own. Yes it is a plus that these characters are not the usual teen couple but pretty bearded gay men, but LGBT film surely deserves better than this. At the very least least a broadly discernible plot and people we can vaguely root for.

It’s not a terrible film. Some scenes are beautifully shot, not least the pictures of an early morning rugby field smothered in morning dew. And the few characters who have any discernable characteristics are likeable enough, in their pretty bearded way. We are vaguely interested in what happens to them – or at least we would be, if only the screenwriter had given them anything interesting to do.

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