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Original title: Hymyilevä mies

D: Juho Kuosmanen / 92m

Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Barquero, Elma Milonoff, Leimu Leisti, Hilma Milonoff, John Bosco Jr

Shot in gorgeous black and white, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki opens in Finland in 1962. Olli (Lahti) is an amateur boxer turned professional whose manager, Elis Ask (Milonoff), is on the verge of clinching a deal that will see Olli fight in a bout against the World Boxing Association featherweight champion, Davey Moore (Bosco Jr). If it goes ahead, it will be the biggest sporting event in Finnish history. But Olli has other things on his mind, particularly his friend Raija Jänkä (Airola). At a wedding they both attend, Olli discovers he’s attracted to her, but at first he doesn’t know what to do or say about his new feelings. When the bout is agreed, Olli finds himself too busy to spend much time with Raija, who is reduced to the role of onlooker by Elis’s insistence that Olli focus on the bout and nothing else.

There’s also the issue of Olli’s weight, which needs to come down in order for him to be able to fight, but which he doesn’t seem to be concentrating on. With Elis arranging for a documentary film crew to record Olli’s preparations, it’s a further distraction for the boxer, and adds to the dissociation he feels with Raija. She too begins to feel the same thing, as Elis’ behaviour pushes her further and further away from Olli, almost to the point where she feels that she’s in the way. Meanwhile, Olli is forced to attend various dinners and promotional photo-shoots, adding to the disenchantment he’s feeling about the whole process. As the bout draws nearer, Raija returns to her home town, while Olli becomes increasingly withdrawn.

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Unable to train any further, Olli follows Raija and declares his feelings for her. Giving Elis no option, he stays with Raija and trains at his own pace, even fighting to get his weight down. At the weigh-in he just comes in under the required weight, and afterwards he proposes to Raija. Buoyed by this he approaches the bout with a renewed sense of optimism. And as he enters the ring, the stage is set for a career- and life-defining moment – but will it prove to be the happiest day of his life?

If you’re not Finnish, and more specifically, up to speed on Finland’s boxing history, then it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard of Olli Mäki. His career was a succession of ups and downs, beginning with his winning the European lightweight title as an amateur in 1959, his bout with Moore, and his European Boxing Union light welterweight title win in 1964. He continued boxing until 1973 when he retired to become a boxing coach and manager. At first glance, his life doesn’t seem to warrant a biopic being made out of one particular period in his life, even if it does include a championship title bout. But this is a boxing movie that isn’t about boxing, even though it inhabits that world. Instead, director Kuosmanen (making his full-length feature debut) and co-writer Mikko Myllylahti have turned their attention onto Mäki himself, his doubts and fears and longings outside the ring, and in doing so, have wrought an accomplished, intelligent, and compassionate portrait of a man fighting for more than just a title.

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From the beginning, Mäki seems bemused and oh-so-bored by all the media circus that surrounds him, a necessary evil he must endure on his way to the title bout. But he knows the ropes as it were, and goes along with Elis’ conditions and demands, trusting in the man who’s got him to this point. But the eagle-eyed viewer will soon spot that Elis is working as much to his own agenda as he is for Olli, and a scene late on where Elis is forced to take his children (and Mäki) with him on a rainy night to visit some of his backers, leaves the distinct feeling that there’s some form of corruption going on behind the scenes. But it’s enough to know that it’s there, because wisely, Kuosmanen doesn’t let this side trip upset the delicate balance he’s established by focusing on Mäki’s warring emotions.

Mäki’s dilemma revolves around whether he should be a lover or a fighter, or whether he can be both. It’s clear that he wants to be both, but if he has to make a choice – and an irrevocable one at that – then it’s obvious that he’ll be a lover. But boxing still has a hold over him, one that’s stronger than his loyalty to Elis, and letting go isn’t as easy as he may have believed. It takes Raija’s complete absence from his training camp to push him in the right direction, and for a moment the movie teeters on the edge of discarding the title fight altogether in favour of a happy ending. But Raija, despite her reservations about the world of boxing, believes in Mäki, and it’s this that allows him to return to his training and make the weigh-in. What happens next may not be entirely unpredictable, and definitely not if you’re familiar with Mäki’s career, but it has a pleasing symmetry with what’s gone before.

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As the eponymous boxer, Lahti wears a worn-down expression for the most part, but it’s in keeping with Mäki’s bemused resignation, and the actor inhabits the role with a weary sincerity. He also makes Mäki’s coiled physicality a part of his performance, as if the character is waiting for the right moment to explode but isn’t quite sure – outside of the ring at least – when that should be. As Raija, Airola (who in certain shots looks like Marion Cotillard’s younger sister) has an air of detachment and melancholy that again suits the movie’s mood and her character’s dwindling sense of importance when measured against Mäki’s training regime. But she also gets a chance to explore Raija’s more winsome, frivolous side in a party scene that fully explains why Mäki falls in love with her. As the main rival for Mäki’s “affections”, Milonoff is equally as good as his co-stars, portraying Elis as a man desperately trying to hide how much this fight means to him both professionally and personally. It could have been a two-dimensional role in comparison to Lahti and Airola’s, but Milonoff takes the bare bones of what appears to be a stock character and fleshes him out with sympathy and understanding.

Kuosmanen’s decision to make The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki in black and white proves to be a perfect choice for the material, and the depth and the richness of the images is further ensured by his use of a Kodak film stock that was never meant for feature length movies. The result is a movie that is frequently beautiful to watch, and which offers the viewer a variety of arresting images. Kuosmanen makes a number of other, equally important decisions, from the movie’s disciplined, elegant framing to the careful way in which he teases out each of the main characters’ feelings and desires in such a way that leaves them vulnerable and yet still secure. Add in themes around personal sacrifice and professional responsibility, as well as the pressures of an entire country’s expectations of an individual, and you have a movie that quietly and effortlessly draws in the viewer and rewards them in a variety of unexpected ways, not the least of which is a dry, diffident sense of humour.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that speaks to the heart and tells a wonderful love story in the process, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a modest, yet enthralling movie that somehow failed to be nominated for an Oscar this year (though it did win the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year); putting all that aside, this should be on everyone’s list of must-see movies, and a welcome reminder that sometimes it’s the movies that receive the least fanfare that can often be the ones to have the most impact.

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