It’s easy to see why The Pass was selected to open this year’s BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival. There’s the fact that it stars Russell Tovey, one of the most in-demand out actors around, especially after his excellent turn in HBO’s Looking. Then there’s its pedigree, adapted for the screen by John Donnelly from his own hit play. Perhaps most of all though, there’s the subject matter: an intimate examination of the sprawling consequences of a fleeting sexual encounter between two football players. While professional sportsmen in the US are slowly beginning to come out, Premier League football is notable for the absence of a single out player.
The Pass is named after two central moments, one on the pitch, and one off. The three-act chamber piece structure visits Tovey’s Jason at three moments over a ten-year span, starting with a night shared with a teammate and rival ahead of a pivotal international match. Each act finds Jason in a different hotel room, and each charts his changing professional and personal fortunes.
The film is a testament to the damage done by the closet, as Jason becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated, his wellbeing ever decreasing even as his income mounts. Football’s regressive, laddish culture is blamed in part (“It’s 1066 out there,” he exclaims at one point), and in Jason’s eyes, “gay ain’t even an option.”
The script’s theatrical heritage is hard to miss, and it’d be fair to question whether The Pass wouldn’t be better suited to the stage after all. First-time director Ben A. Williams films Donnelly’s script confidently, but there’s little flair to justify the big-screen adaptation – beyond perhaps the hope of bringing it to a wider audience.
Still, Tovey is electric as the increasingly frantic footballer, ‘banter’ his increasingly desperate defence measure. It’s a fittingly physical performance, suggesting a man incapable of staying still lest he be forced to examine himself too closely. The supporting cast hold their own against him, not least Arinze Kene as teammate Ade, offering a startling evolution across his two scenes, ten years apart.
There’s perhaps nothing pivotal or notable about a film depicting the detrimental mental health impact of the closet, but as the sporting world continues to battle homophobia within its ranks, it remains frustratingly relevant. The Pass may not offer any solutions, but it’s a pressing, powerful reminder of the problem.
Words by Dominic Preston
The Pass screens at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival on the 16th and 17th March.