The ring master

REVIEWED: MILLION DOLLAR BABY Clint Eastwood's winning film about an ageing coach who takes on a young female boxer could well…

REVIEWED: MILLION DOLLAR BABY Clint Eastwood's winning film about an ageing coach who takes on a young female boxer could well be his personal best, writes Michael Dwyer.

The outline of Million Dollar Baby suggests a contrived hybrid of Pygmalion and Rocky: gruff, elderly boxing coach reluctantly takes on plucky young woman fighter. From that basis, however, Clint Eastwood has made one of the finest American movies of recent years, a textbook primer in classic film-making, with a rich, astutely observed screenplay and a trio of central performances from fine actors on exceptional form.

For an actor who made his mark playing violent avengers The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, Eastwood has surprised most people with the sheer subtlety, unfussy style and consummate skill of his best work as a director, and those qualities permeate his quietly smouldering and emotionally powerful new movie.

Despite the ostensible familiarity of the scenario, Eastwood seductively draws the viewer into the world of three lonely, bruised people, to the point where the viewer becomes wholly immersed in them and their fates.

He plays Frankie Dunn, an Irish-American Catholic who is "learning Gaelic", quotes Yeats in his gravelled voice and goes to Mass every day, regularly badgering his parish priest (Irish actor Brian O'Byrne).

Frankie runs a small gym, The Hit Pit, in downtown Los Angeles. Experience has taught him to err on the side of caution: his first rule for his fighters is always to protect themselves. An unreconstructed traditionalist, he is less than pleased when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a struggling waitress and strong-willed pugilist, starts using his gym, until his caretaker, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who lost the sight of one eye in the ring, persuades him to take her on.

Against this macho backdrop, the movie develops a tender, deeply involving surrogate father-daughter relationship between the trainer and his new protégée - for whom he acquires a green cloak emblazoned with a harp and the words, "Mo Cuishle".

The screenplay - adapted by Paul Haggis from FX Toole's short story, Rope Burns - is a marvel, crackling with wit and wisdom in the dialogue and the dry-humoured, philosophical musings of Scrap, the story's narrator. Some of Eastwood's lines match the witty terseness of his most quotable exchanges as Dirty Harry: "You made two mistakes. You asked a question - and then you asked another question." The leading players interact with palpable screen chemistry in their rapport and repartee. Eastwood - who also composed the movie's effectively low-key score - playfully sparks off Freeman, and both perform with such ease and grace that their work appears effortless. And Swank - who refused to use a double for any of the many expertly staged fight sequences - is a wonder to behold, in and out of the ring.

This is the 25th feature film directed by Eastwood, who turns 75 at the end of May, and it ranks with his greatest achievements - and, arguably, above all of them.