Jessica Hynes: all the rage

Jessica Hynes has turned to directing for the first time with a film about boxing and female rage

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The starting point for The Fight, written, directed by and starring Jessica Hynes, was a place. The 46 year old, best known for the television comedies Spaced, Twenty Twelve and W1A, was encouraged by a friend to join a boxercise class in her hometown of Folkestone, and what she found when she arrived for her first class inspired her.

“What was good about working on a low budget, was how much more control I had.”

“It was like an old school gym, so lovely and untouched,” Hynes says, speaking to Big Issue North on the day the film is released nationwide. “The red walls, the boxing ring – there was something really old fashioned about it. I started thinking about the people there and what stories they might have and I had this idea about this woman who was a bit downtrodden by life who went there. I wanted to give her a kind of Rocky moment, with the excitement and triumph that goes along with that.”

The set-up of The Fight is fairly straightforward. Tina (Hynes), a middle-aged mum of three, battles to keep a lid on her difficult family life. She works in a care home during the day while her husband works nights. One rolls exhausted into bed while the other rolls out. There are fraught family dinners and battles to get the kids ready for school, while Tina also fields calls from her mother, complaining about her father’s lack of engagement. “I think he may
be autistic,” she says in one scene.

The self-help tapes Tina listens to while out running or doing the laundry are not helping to calm her (little wonder  – they are voiced by Russell Brand) and so Tina takes first to boxercise and then to actual boxing to work out her frustrations. And Tina gets her Rocky moment, in particular a montage scene where she trains for a fight, running along the seafront practising her jabs and doing endless sit-ups in the gym.

What develops over the course of the film, though, is a metaphorical tale about ordinary people “fighting” to succeed and an exploration of what Hynes calls “female rage”, which bursts out of the film in many different ways. Tina’s eldest daughter Emma Bell is being bullied by another girl at school, for example, which connects with Tina’s own childhood experiences in unexpected ways, while Tina’s mum turns out to be both emotionally and physically abusive, so much so that Tina’s father has to come and hide at her house. And Tina herself is just about holding it together.

“You threw a plate at me last week,” her son chides. “No. I threw a plate at the floor,” she says. “Not at you.”

“I wanted to write a character who had all this toxic female rage and [examine] how you could overcome this and deal with it,” says Hynes.

Was some of this based on Hynes’s own life? She says not, and that the themes and characters came from her observations of the women in the gym.

“It was more about exploring what would make someone become a female boxer, that cycle of violence and rage that can be passed on, how it can be overcome and how you can dispel it.”

And although the boxing ring scenes are wincingly realistic – “we certainly wanted to make it look as real as possible,” – it’s the violence that erupts outside the ring that’s most shocking. It’s this exploration of rage that the film does particularly well. The former EastEnders actor Anita Dobson delivers a stand-out performance as Tina’s mum, someone who is both damaged and damaging, lashing out at those around her with passive-aggressive, and then just plain aggressive, intensity. “Isn’t she terrifying?” enthuses Hynes.

Filmed entirely in Folkestone in just 12 days, The Fight is Hynes’s directorial debut, and it’s an experience that she enjoyed. She says she didn’t find the dual role behind and in front of the camera a challenge at all, despite the constraints of the small budget.

“I wanted to create something that felt cinematic. I didn’t want wobbly camera shots and things like that.”

The film is full of sweeping aerial views over the Folkestone coastline, for example, and meditative shots of lavender gently swaying in the summer breeze, all of which contrast with the frenetic boxing scenes, filmed inside the very boxing gym that inspired the film.

“I was on a mission to capture the most truthful moments that could be used to create the story, always looking for things that could be used in the edit, thinking what can we do and how can we do it.”

This move into directing comes on top of a career that’s already been a success. Hynes’s first major television role was as the dowdy neighbour Cheryl in The Royle Family (then working under the name Jessica Stevenson), and in 1999 she co-wrote and starred in the comedy Spaced with Simon Pegg. She won a British Comedy Award for her role as
the drop-out Daisy in that series and in 2015 she won a Bafta for her role as Siobhan Sharpe, the “brand consultant” who bamboozles executives in both Twenty Twelve, a fictional take on the London Olympic planning committee, and W1A, similarly skewering the BBC. Siobhan Sharpe was, says Hynes, “floating around in my repertoire” before the chance came along to develop the character. “When the scripts for Twenty Twelve came along she just felt right.”

Is there any chance of Siobhan Sharpe making an appearance again one day? Surely she could be handling the PR disaster that is Brexit? Hynes laughs. “They need her! They should be listening to her voice!”

Actually, her next major role on television will be in the Russell T Davies drama Years And Years, starring alongside Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear and Russell Tovey. With still a day’s shooting to be done at the time we speak, Hynes says she “can’t say much about the project” but reveals it is a “near future sci-fi set in a dystopian society”.

With this, The Fight and last year’s ultra black comedy There She Goes, in which she plays the mother of a daughter who has severe learning disabilities and for which she has just been nominated for another Bafta, is this a shift in Hynes’s career towards a darker period?

“It’s just how things have evolved. I love comedy and I definitely want to get back to that in my next writing project, but it’s exciting to do something different and great to work with Russell T Davies.

“The opportunity to make a film was phenomenal, and what was good about working on a low budget, which was unexpected really, was how much more control I had because there’s less expectations on what I was doing… which I suppose is comedy.”

It’s fair to say, despite some lighter moments, The Fight isn’t full of laughter, but, counters Hynes, “there is a lot of warmth in the film. I am happy with the way it turned it out and I really hope people enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it.”

The Fight is in cinemas now. Jessica Hynes will be at Home, Manchester on 3 May for a Q&A after the film’s screening 

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