Film review: Eddie the Eagle

David Gritten / 31 March 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten has always warmed to underdog Eddie the Eagle – but has a few problems with a new film about him.

Who among us doesn’t love Eddie the Eagle? He’s an underdog for connoisseurs, a bona fide British hero who carved his name into history by making it into the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary as Britain’s first ever Olympic ski jumper, even though he was self-taught. He finished last by some distance in two events, but his clownish antics and sheer joy at being there endeared him to the world; implausibly, he hijacked that Winter Games without even trying. He remains Britain’s best known ski jumper ever.

You can see, then, why there might be a film about Eddie; it’s even surprising that such a compelling, heart-warming story has taken 28 years to arrive on our screens. Now it’s here, and it’s precisely what you’d expect from every other sports movie you’ve ever seen – feelgood triumph achieved by overcoming several apparently insurmountable obstacles en route, through sheer determination and guts.

That’s certainly the template for Eddie the Eagle, and the film works well on this fundamental level. British actor Taron Edgerton makes a decent fist of portraying our hapless hero: clumsy, virginal, lacking social skills, while retaining a certain innocent, childlike sweetness.

Edgerton went to considerable lengths to look the part: Eddie’s strange habit of jutting out his jaw; those big, thick glasses; his vague, flustered manner. The actor looks marginally better than the real man he’s portraying ever did, but then we expect a little poetic licence on film.

The film (directed nimbly by Dexter Fletcher) has its moments of comedy and heartbreak. So far, so good. The real problem is that Eddie’s remarkable story isn’t quite remarkable enough for the film-makers, who graft other stories on to his to flesh it out.

Chief among these is the appearance of Hugh Jackman, playing Bronson Peary, once an outstanding skier himself, who blew his chance of real greatness through indiscipline and a love for the bottle. He reluctantly becomes Eddie’s coach and steers him to unlikely glory, thereby redeeming his own past.

But you know all about Bronson Peary, don’t you? No, of course, you don’t. He’s completely fictional – a creation of screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton. And the trouble with Jackman’s Peary is that his own personal ‘journey’ towards redemption – by now a stale, hoary Hollywood cliché – sometimes overwhelms the central story of Eddie’s triumph.

I’ve been writing about films more than long enough to know that truth gets side-lined in the re-telling of real lives. But the degree to which this is true of Eddie the Eagle mars what might have been a pleasant little movie. It’s Eddie’s story on steroids, an absurd makeover of a true story. Eddie himself has stated the film is only about 5% accurate.

It’s as if the film-makers didn’t trust the strange fascination of Eddie’s story, and decided to hedge their bets by padding it out with familiar film clichés. (Macaulay, a sometime journalist, has written perceptively about Hollywood’s inner workings; he knew exactly what he was doing.)

And so the fictions pile up. While Eddie’s mother (Jo Hartley) is sweetly encouraging to him, his dad (Keith Allen) is sullen and scornful about his son’s ambitions and keeps nags him to forget skiing and become a plasterer like him. Not true, apparently. Nor is the film’s suggestion that Eddie was physically inept. In fact, he was a decent all-round sportsman and, despite his ‘failures’ at the Olympics, an excellent skier by any standards.

Once you know these incidents are fictional, you can’t ‘un-know’ them. Of course, to tell even half the truth would have meant removing several obstacles on Eddie’s path to triumph. Still, that might have made for a better, leaner film; as it is, the end product feels padded out at around 105 minutes.

And yet, despite the film’s faults – the ghastly synthesiser 80s music on the soundtrack; a gratingly cute workout session with Edgerton and Jackman high-stepping to a Hall and Oates track; an embarrassing seduction attempt on Eddie by an attractive older woman at

the ski training centre in Germany – it bows out on the right note.

There’s a scene near the end when Eddie returns home from Calgary a famous man, and is met at Heathrow by crowds of well-wishers joyfully chanting his name. It’s rather moving and touching; Edgerton plays Eddie’s dazed pleasure perfectly. Even knowing all I knew, I finally felt myself rooting for this unlikely hero, and delighted his labours were so warmly and widely appreciated. Must be the magic of the movies, I suppose. 

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