A Moderate 'Fever'
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2000
If you don't operate on the premise that soccer is the most important thing in
the universe, you might not go along with everything in "Fever Pitch," a 1997
English movie that has only just surfaced here.
Ruth Gemmel and Colin Firth have differing views of football's importance.
But maybe you'll understand a person's obsession with a sports team
completely overruling his (or her) life. Surely that's a universal.
A passion for soccer or rather, football is the essential driving force
behind Nick Hornby's adaptation of his best-selling novel. The movie,
directed by David Evans, is about Paul (Colin Firth), a schoolteacher who
has been obsessively following the London soccer club Arsenal since his
To be an Arsenal fan as Hornby tells us in book and movie is to be mostly
miserable. Although the team had a glorious "double" in 1971 (when they won
the country's two biggest national cups), they have never done more than come
close to glory since then. Consequently, misery and dashed hope have been
Paul's constant companions.
The year is now 1989. It's near the end of the season, with only a few games
left. Arsenal is at the top of the table. But they have to keep winning to
stay there. And now, 18 years after the team's last exultation, it looks as
though Arsenal might just win the English league.
Of course, Paul knows that this could be another instance of life teasing
Arsenal fans, daring them to hope, then tugging the prize from their
As Paul goes to pieces under the pressure, a woman suddenly enters his life.
She's a new teacher at Paul's school. Her name is Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), and
she comes off as priggish. But Paul discovers she's also charming, attractive
and perfect. The attraction is mutual and almost instant. But there is one
problem, a big one: Sarah doesn't get Paul's passion for the club and the
She doesn't understand that he can't possibly make social plans until he has
seen Arsenal's entire fixture list for the season. She's shocked to learn he
wears boxer shorts festooned with pictures of cannons…Arsenal's emblem. She
doesn't accept that he's stuck in a 21-year relationship that he can't just
I have asked my wife to read this review carefully.
Hornby readers, I'm sure, will be mildly disappointed. The movie doesn't
have the same appealing, melancholy tenor as the book. Hornby, who wrote the
screen adaptation, has built the whole film around this Paul-Sarah element in
a clear move to universalize the story i.e., bring in non-soccer fans. The
whole point of the book is to detail Paul's tragic adherence to Arsenal and
to make it a virtue. But here, soccer is an intrusion in his romantic
maturity. Not quite the same thing.
However, that said, the movie is still a potboiling pleasure. Firth is
highly appealing as the scruffy, kid-inside-a-man Paul. And his hangdog
devotion to Arsenal is writ clear and often amusing. When a mother excitedly
talks about Paul's influence on her son Robert, she chatters on about
Robert's new love for Arsenal thanks to Paul.
"Robert thinks they might win the championship for the first time since
1970," says the mother.
Paul can't restrain himself.
"1971," he says.
Maybe the movie does bring a fair-to-middling compromise between the need to
adapt a soccer-holic classic and to attract a wider audience, but it's still
pleasurable. As a soccer fan, I admit I was disappointed that I didn't get to
see enough actual soccer from the 1970s and 1980s. And frankly, I could have
taken or left this central love affair. I mean, they're cute together and
all, but how about the footie? Mainly, I loved the premise: that soccer is
too important to dismiss as "just football." And that love for the sport can
literally affect a whole chain of people: Paul, his career at school, his
potential fiancee and the line of children that may or may not be born,
depending on Arsenal's fixture list, of course. And to think, I can't even
FEVER PITCH (R, 98 minutes) Contains obscenity, but really not so much for
life in England. Some of that English muttering and those idioms may be hard