The Grass Arena tells the true life story of John Healy (Mark Rylance), a man who hit rock bottom, but managed to turn his life around thanks to his love of chess. Based upon the autobiography of the same name, the 1990’s film has finally come to home release on DVD.
I’d never heard of John Healy before watching this film, and found the synopsis of the film to be very interesting, and was looking forward to learning more about him. Unfortunately, I felt fairly let down by the end.
My main issue with the film is that it packs a lot into it’s run time, but doesn’t really give any other the plot points or character development any real time. The film begins with John’s childhood, where we see the abuse that he suffered at home from his overbearing and abusive father.
Much of this abuse stems from the fact that John struggles to stand up straight, complaining about what he describes as a lump in his back. This feels like it should be something that’s addressed, especially after an X-ray discovers a shadow over one of his lungs, yet this is dropped without an explenation and never comes up again; leaving me wondering what John may have been wrong with John, and if this was something that plagued him throughout life.
Another aspect of his childhood that puts him at odds with his father is his lack of faith, but yet again this isn’t really gone into. It’s not clear if John had faith and lost it, or if he never believed in god to begin with. I couldn’t help but feel that for a plot point that was such a big part of John’s poor childhood, a sentence or two of dialogue giving more context would have helped a little.
Sadly, this is something that would give me issue throughout the film, as the film makes a number of jumps in time and story, yet never really goes into explanation as to what’s happening. For example, at one point John meets a woman in a cafe, the next he’s living with her and two other men in an abandoned factory until one of them dies. Who are these people? How did he start living with them? How long were they together? I haven’t a clue, because the film fails to explain this, and several other developments in John’s life.
Much of this feels like a product of time constraints. It felt like 90 minutes wasn’t enough time to fit in all of the information on a life as packed as John’s. Perhaps a mini-series would have been a better format as it would have allowed the filmmakers more time to explain and develop the events in a more cohesive way.
There are moments in the film that are good, however, such as when Fox (Bunny May) teaches him to play chess. Watching the development between the two of them is a genuinely sweet moment, especially when the two of them are playing the game in their bunk at night, all in their heads. The natural ability of John is astounding, and his chess skills are shocking, especially as it was what he needed to end the cycle of self destruction that he was on, giving him that new obsession he needed to stay sober.
The Grass Arena is far from a perfect film, but it achieves it’s goals of telling a story about an amazing and inspiring man. It shows that it’s never too late to turn your life around or to discover your true passions. If given more time to go into greater detail the film would have been even better, but as it is, it’s still a well made and competent movie.
The Grass Arena is now available on DVD from Simply Media.