australia, camaraderie, cook, cricket, england, mental health, psychology, team, The Ashes, The Edge
Contrary to most reviews and comments I’ve seen, I don’t think The Edge was perfect.
There are so few cricket films – and even fewer where the filmmaker understands, as in this case, the sport with the same passion as we do, its intricacies and vagaries, its labyrinthine psychology, its beauty and its brutality – that we feel so unutterably grateful when one comes along that we dare not criticise for fear of putting off anyone else who might want to have a go.
So we press ‘Play’ with our expectations already set at 100% and we do all in our power to keep them there.
Having not seen a bad word said about it, and having loved my first viewing of it when it came out, I decided to watch The Edge for a second time.
I’m still not sure about the opening. A part of me admires the huge, sweeping ambition of the visuals and the spare, epic script; while another part of me can’t help but wince at the artifice of Jimmy Anderson running on the beach and the portentous rhetoric whose content seems somewhat insubstantial compared to the gravity of the style with which it is delivered.
I suspect there are many who loved it, probably most. For me, it jarred.
But then we’re into the action. ‘How much would you give to be the best?’ is the question asked and it forms the backdrop for everything else that is to come.
Whether the sweeping shots of a northern beach or the brooding bucolic expanses of Trott’s mind float your boat or not, there’s no denying that Barney Douglas has a filmmaker’s eye. This was evident from his first film, Warriors, which was also richly visual and delighted in the natural beauty of its setting to enhance the film’s aesthetic.
Here, the visuals not only make the most of the footage available but the set-up shots, such as the interviews, are elegantly arranged, even down to Andy Flower seeming to emerge from the shadows like a Bond villain.
The aircraft hangar, where the team’s route to becoming no.1 is visually charted in a way reminiscent of a Waking the Dead investigation board, is another striking visual choice that steers dangerously close to visual hyperbole. But there are subtler choices too, like the tape recorder used to indicate significant moments, which seems to meld with the overall aesthetic much better than the huge visual statements; and on the audio side, the brilliant choice of an energetic, discordant, discombobulating but insistent jazz funk track that accompanied KP’s brilliantly angry innings in 2012 against South Africa. Nice.
The film really gets interesting once the talking heads take centre stage. We start to see what makes players tick, what the dynamics were between players, the coach and the captain. We get little insights into personalities – ‘I didn’t know Andy Flower from a bar of soap’ says Tim Bresnan.
I was curious about how and where the players were interviewed and how much we were being presented with a narrative: Monty in a very everyday café location, cleaning his glasses nervously, with a glass of water in front of him; Strauss sitting back on an expensive sofa in a smart, well-lit room; Colly comfortable in a Chesterfield armchair; Bresilad in a no-nonsense room with a huge fridge in the background. The film needs a narrative to hold it together, of course, but it’s interesting to note the way the protagonists are presented to us – and how some who played a significant part, such as Tremlett, are not really mentioned at all.
I assume this is all down to the need to keep a tight rein on the narrative being told in a 90-minute film. I just wish it had been a series instead – it felt like so much must have been left on the cutting room floor. I’m sure there was enough going on to give or five or six one-hour shows, which would have been amazing.
Trott’s story is one of the key threads running through the film, and he gets the full treatment when it comes to visual re-enactments of both his matchday routines and his psychological states. His teammates talk about his idiosyncrasies with a bemusement that is infused with affection, and this attitude typifies something of what it is that makes a great team (apart from ability and hard work): mutual respect and acceptance. Jimmy Anderson describes Trott’s unusual box routine and ruefully comments, ‘I quite miss that actually’.
Indeed the whole film describes an arc whereby at one peak moment, the cricket on the field and the camaraderie off it were at their zenith. The film perfectly captures that boisterous, successful dressing room environment that any cricketer of any standard will be familiar with, where all team-mates are equal and held in the warm embrace of the affectionate piss-take.
The pre-2010-11 Ashes boot camp section was fascinating. Firstly, a caveat: I hate this kind of macho bullshit with a passion and the footage did nothing to change my view. Andy Flower said the camp ‘revealed short-cutters, revealed character’. I would suggest it revealed what he wanted to find.
The campfire moment, though, which is what Strauss picked out as the key part of the camp, was powerful. This is where players opened up, shared vulnerabilities and developed trust, cemented a camaraderie that would stand them in good stead for the winter.
They didn’t, however, need to go through all the rest of the camp nonsense to get to this point.
An interesting aside is that, for family reasons, Cook missed most of the camp and Trott missed it all. These two were England’s leading run scorers in the series. (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/jun/26/england-ashes-boot-camps)
With clear leadership, clear vision and a clear target from Flower and Strauss – to go from seventh in the world to number one in two years – they actually did it in 18 months. Then, fascinatingly, we have Strauss saying, ‘Holding that mace to say we were number one in the world…it was a bit of an anti-climax. Is this it?’.
And this is the challenge of being utterly goal-oriented: what do you do when you get there? When you realise that you reached an arbitrary point in what is actually just a game? When the structure that held your life together was a temporary one, a functional artifice whose raison d’etre disappeared in the moment of its realisation.
And so it was that the glue that held this team together started to decay.
For me, the last 20 minutes of the film were the best: the insight into the psychological disintegration of the team and some of its members, and the different ways in which that disintegration played out: Monty eating to fill a hole in his soul, Finny falling apart in the face of brutal press coverage, Prior raging against the dying of the light, Trott losing all sense of who he was and what he was doing.
As a society and as sports-lovers, we’re too committed to a linear view of sportsmen I think, especially when it comes to the psychological side. We need to allow for peaks and troughs, for how we’re very different people at different times and in different situations. We are constantly shifting and we mustn’t pathologise or over-dramatise these normal ebbs and flows.
I wonder: if Trott had been treated differently in 2013, might he have come back successfully? His England career was rich but surprisingly short and surely it must be the reification of Trott’s psychological dip that contributed most to this?
One of the positive unintended consequences of there being so much cricket now and rotation being a standard policy is that this might just create the space to acknowledge mental ups and downs, respond to them appropriately and ensure players can take a break and resume when they’re ready.
Trott was the central story of this film and we must be grateful to both him and to Barney Douglas for going in deep. The film’s willingness to look these issues square in the face turns it from a compelling sporting story to a vital human one.
The film shows Trott’s extraordinary confidence at the start of his career – ‘I knew I could go out and deliver’, he says before his Ashes test debut – and contrasts this with his disintegration at (what was essentially) the end of his career during the punishing 2013 Ashes.
If people, especially those with high pressure jobs or stressful personal circumstances, come away from this film with anything, it must surely be the value of knowing yourself and ensuring you have good people around you.
The problem with ‘mental illness’ (a disputed term but that discussion must wait for another day) is that it is rarely immediately obvious. People do not often drop into entirely different states of mind just like that (certain conditions excepted). It is slow, gradual, insidious – which makes it very difficult to pinpoint when it becomes a problem. And this is how it was for Trott. So when he felt out of sorts, he practised harder: this does not seem an unreasonable response for a professional sportsman. But something about that practice wasn’t right – he was getting peppered with 95mph deliveries from the bowling machine, over and over. When he wasn’t performing, he was down and miserable – but he’s a professional sportsman and this was his job, so why wouldn’t he be?
Perhaps Trott did not have the self-awareness at the time to take a step back – or maybe the stakes were too high, the environment too brittle to make that a choice. Equally, no-one stepped in at the first signs and tried to help him regain some perspective, to remember that cricket is not everything. As Matt Prior comments, ‘We never stopped to take a breath’. Exactly so.
It was fascinating to hear Trott explain how the situation affected everything, including his movements. Anyone who still hangs on to some kind of cartesian dualism should watch this film and understand that mind and body are one, constantly interacting and responding. So it is that when people are struggling, they may reach for food or drink or drugs, or they may become obsessive over exercise (or stop altogether), they may struggle to sleep, they may get pain, lose co-ordination and so on. The point is, if you know yourself well enough, you can begin to spot the signs that you’re struggling. And even if you can’t, then maybe someone around you can, and interrupt the chain of events before they reach crisis point.
[Damasio’s Theory of Consciousness and Porges’ Polyvagal Theory are both interesting explorations of the body-mind phenomenon if you fancy reading more. For a slightly less academic read, van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score is a truly brilliant eye-opener.]
Trott’s final talking head of this outstanding film is deeply moving, capturing the ineffable, often unspoken bond of team-mates in a dressing room (indeed David Saker’s speech on the outfield confirmed it should probably remain unspoken, the ethereal turning lumpen as the words tumbled untidily from his mouth).
Andy Flower, towards the end, asks, ‘Why does it matter at all?’ What a great question.
The answer is that it helps us make meaning of our lives. Unless we are fortunate enough to have the unshakeable certainty of a religious belief system in our lives, then we make our own narratives to stretch a blanket of meaning over the existential void. It is hard to make meanings without other people and without relationships, without confirming your existence in the mirror of the other. As Andrew Strauss said, ‘It makes you feel alive’.
Yes, that’s about it.