Reviews, Screen, TV

On the Ropes review: SBS’s female-led boxing drama makes compelling viewing

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The first episode of SBS’s four-part drama On the Ropes (which premiered this week) begins with an image reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler: a behind-the-back handheld shot tracing the steps of a person marching towards the ring. We assume this character, Amirah Al-Amir (Nicole Chamoun) is a boxer, but discover upon her arrival that she is an aspiring trainer. The plucky Iraqi-Australian wants to follow the footsteps of her father Sami (Naor), who trains boxers and runs a gym in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The plethora of boxing-themed films and TV shows out there have conditioned audiences to expect the story to unfold from the perspective of the person copping and making the blows. That is not Amirah but up-and-comer Jess O’Connor (Keisha Castle-Hughes, from Game of Thrones and Whale Rider) who is slated to take on a much more experienced opponent. Jess is a poor single parent living in a house a stone’s throw from a train line, which rattles and creaks as carriages go by: a visual reminder of her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ status.

Boxing stories are inherently dramatic, the possibility of terrible injury and even death never all that far away. In this sense it is a dramatically rich genre ripe for depictions of several kinds of fighting: for victory, dignity, life, money, honour etcetera. But the genre is so well explored (a new Rocky film, Creed II, even arrives the same week On the Ropes premieres) it is difficult to stand out from the pack. Few if any directors can match the elegant brutality of Martin Scorsese’s ballet-like compositions in Raging Bull, or build to an emotional ending anywhere near as gut-wrenching as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.

The show’s emphasis on a non-fighter in some ways works in its favour, reducing the temptation to glamourise a brutal sport.

On the Ropes creator Courtney Wise, director Shannon Murphy and screenwriters Tamara Asmar, Adam Todd and Ian Meadows seem to recognise this, finding ways to shift focus away from the ring to characters and situations around it. The first time we see Jess fighting, the match is interrupted by an event more critical to the narrative than the sport itself. In the heat of an argument with Amirah, Sami hits an official, which puts in jeopardy his boxing license and livelihood.

This incident exacerbates already tense feelings between father and daughter, their strained relationship forming the emotional crux of the story. When Sami tells Amirah “you just don’t have what it takes” – one of a few examples of neat dialogue threatening the show’s hard-fought verisimilitude – this of course provides extra incentive for the protagonist. Cultural context is also significant, Amirah’s headstrong behaviour rubbing up against male-dominated environments and a conservative Muslim community.

At times the structure feels fractured, and even ad hoc – some story strands seemingly decided in the editing room rather than on the page. The final episode (no spoilers) doesn’t quite pull off the difficult task of infusing a sporting event with emotional meaning, while also making the simultaneous statement that it doesn’t really matter who wins or loses.

On the Ropes is nevertheless compelling viewing across its four episodes, the most obvious connective tissue being Nicole Chamoun’s fine performance. This has been a breakthrough year for her, with impressive turns in Romper Stomper and Safe Harbour. In On the Ropes, Jack Thompson appears in a small supporting role as a boxing powerbroker, scolding Jess for believing that she can “fight your way out of your shitty life.” We leave wanting more of him.

The show’s emphasis on a non-fighter in some ways works in its favour, reducing the temptation to glamourise a brutal sport. This focus also imparts a broader message that everybody around the ring has a potentially interesting story, irrespective of whether they are swinging literal punches. That of course includes Amirah, a thoughtfully drawn character whose importance is never overstated. We understand this is her story, but also that she is no more or less deserving than anybody else.

On the Ropes is on SBS On Demand

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