The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki review: a very worthy contender
Juho Kuosmanen’s Cannes-winning debut feature tells the tale of a boxing underdog with warmth and humour
Punch drunk love: Jarkko Lahti as Finnish sporting hero Olli Mäki
Film Title: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Starring: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Barquero, Elma Milonoff, Leimu Leisti, Hilma Milonoff, John Bosco Jr
Running Time: 98 min
De Niro’s Jake La Motta may be an animalistic exception, but mostly, we can depend on the movieverse’s boxers to be big old softies. Enter Olli Mäki, the subject of this hugely likeable boxing underdog movie, and a screen boxer so snuggly-wuggly, he makes kindly Rocky Balboa seem like a hard-man.
Mäki, an obscure Finnish sporting hero, made history – albeit as a footnote – as a fighter who had a shot at the 1962 Featherweight Title. Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature – the winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year – chronicles Olli’s preparations for the bout.
It is both fortunate and unfortunate that the pugilist’s big break coincides with falling in love with Raija (Oona Airola). The blossoming romance is distracting but it’s the least of Olli’s problems. The boxer has just two weeks to drop from lightweight down to featherweight. He is, moreover, entirely ill-suited to his new overnight celebrity, yet his manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) insists on hiring a documentary crew, uncomfortable publicity shots and dinners with sponsors.
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Shot (by DOP J-P Passi), with a curtsey to the nouvelle vague, in free-flowing, handheld monochrome on 16mm, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki bobs and weaves through a boxing underdog narrative reimagined as a warm, romantic drama. The understated, wry script, co-written by the director and Mikko Myllylahti, goes for a win on points rather than a grand, dramatic knockout.
But its Jarkko Lahti’s central performance – a turn that’s as big-hearted as Olli himself – that steals the show. Watch out for cameos from the real Olli and Raija.