Mark Cunliffe 🌹’s review published on Letterboxd:
St Helens, England, 1944
I can't tell you how much of a rush that opening caption gave me. It's not often that a film is set in my hometown. Not just my hometown, but on the very streets immediately beyond my front doorstep and within my local pub. And OK, they didn't film it here, they filmed it in rural Northern Ireland, which doesn't really look anything like here but yeah, let me have my moment.
Bert Trautmann is a legend in St Helens. Arriving in the town as a German POW, his prowess as a goalkeeper soon caught the attention of St Helens AFC's manager Jack Friar, whilst his good looks captured the heart of Friar's daughter Margaret. Of course, being a former soldier in the Wehrmacht (and one awarded the Iron Cross to boot), Trautmann's reception in the town was initially a hostile one in the immediate aftermath of the war, and this struggle to be accepted was further magnified when he signed for Manchester City, one of the biggest clubs in England, in 1949. But Trautmann's gentlemanly conduct, his desire to move on and make the best of things, and his outstanding performances on the pitch soon won even his fiercest critics over. As a player with Man City, he will forever be remembered as 'the man who played on' when, during the 1956 FA Cup Final, he broke his neck but refused to leave the pitch until victory was secured.
It is very weird watching a film set in your hometown though, seeing locations on screen purporting to be places you know, and seeing household familiar actors portray people whose children, grandchildren and relations you also actually know to talk to. As I say, the location filming doesn't really look much like what St Helens looked like during this period (nowhere near industrial looking enough really) and the exterior location of the Junction Inn (my nearest pub) is particularly unrecognisable, I mean it's called the Junction because it's directly opposite the train station so to not factor that in was a bit remiss, but they've clearly worked from photos of the now demolished 'town ground', as us St Heleners affectionately called the team's ground, as the stands as depicted brought back memories. I was speaking with Mark Walker earlier about accents and getting them right (and wrong) in films and it's fair to say that no one on the screen here really convinced me as coming from St Helens, with the possible exception of Barbara Young as Grandma Sarah. John Henshaw, who plays Jack Friar, is performing in his usual Manchester Ancoats accents, whilst Freya Mavor (playing Margaret) and the rest of the cast are doing a generic northern accent that often sounded more Yorkshire to my ears than Lancastrian. To be fair, St Helens is a strange accent these days, with no two people ever really sounding the same; some sound proper Lancastrian, whilst others sound scouse, but the former was definitely the way to go for the actors here. Did any of this detract from me appreciation of the film? No, not really. I'm just glad that they got some good details in - such as the team singing 'When the Saints Go Marching In', a St Helens anthem used for both football and rugby league - and have bothered to tell the story in the first place. It's been a long time coming; the actor Warren Clarke, a staunch Man City fan*, had long harboured a desire to make a film of Trautmann's extraordinary life and it's a shame that he didn't live to see this.
I can't fault the performances either; David Kross is very good and believable as Trautmann, both on and off the pitch, and he possesses good chemistry with Mavor, an actress who is fast becoming a crush for me. John Henshaw is always good value, that goes without saying, but I did feel that the likes of Gary Lewis, Dervla Kirwan, Dave Johns and Julian Sands were a little wasted in their supporting roles. As a film, I wouldn't say The Keeper did anything spectacular and may hold little interest for anyone outside of the north west or those who do not follow football, but it was a very enjoyable watch that didn't seek to simply gloss over Trautmann's war record and the discomfort he felt about having to perform such a duty. I may be reading a little too much into it here, and I have to be a little careful about what I say, but in some respects The Keeper feels a little timely now as a Brexit movie. St Helens, to my eternal disappointment, was a leave voting town (as indeed were so many towns scarcely troubled by immigration and who had previously benefitted greatly from EU funding) so there's something of a contemporary resonance in seeing characters purporting to be from here (and later from Manchester) telling a German immigrant to go home and treating him with vitriol. Now obviously with the war, these people had a much greater and more genuine reason for hating a foreign migrant than any xenophobe has towards a wholly innocent one in today's climate, but I felt that the parallel was still there nonetheless and that the harmonious message of forgive and forget that the film has is one that is needed now more than ever. Then again, with the news as it is, maybe everything I view feels like it's shot through with Brexit nowadays.
*One other famous Man City fan also makes a contribution to the movie; Noel Gallagher's song, 'The Dying of the Light', plays over the closing credits.