If The Pyramid Texts doesn’t leave you in pieces, you have no heart.
This review could start and end right there, because that’s the level of emotional power in the Shamassian brothers’ directorial debut. Given that the central character, Ray (James Cosmo) is an ex-boxer and the setting is the gym where he trains young fighters, the usual boxing puns could be mandatory, but we’ve heard them all before. What we haven’t seen is a film quite like this. And the pity is that it’s taken two years to get a wider release after its debut at 2015 Edinburgh Film Festival and, even then, it’s confined to digital platforms.
That said, it’s a film inherently suited to the smaller screen. That setting is one reason and the set-up is another. Ray is sat in the boxing ring, the gym is deserted, and he’s talking to a video camera. It very rarely strays outside of the ring and, when it does, it’s to see a young boxer (Cosmo’s own son, Ethan) in different settings – fighting, having a cut treated, in the shower. The film is essentially Ray’s monologue, delivered towards the camera, but he very rarely looks it in the eye and, as it represents the audience, it’s as if he can’t look us in the eye as well.
To talk too much about the plot as it unfolds would be to undermine the devastating emotional intensity of the film – one that, by the time it reaches its climax, is shattering and leaves you stunned. Not so much by the unexpected, but by the naked emotion on the screen, all of which is part of Cosmo’s heart breaking performance.
Let’s unravel one thing – and that’s the title. The original Pyramid Texts are a collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts, carved on the walls of pyramids and discovered in the 19th century. Their spells are mainly concerned with protecting the remains of the Pharaoh. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand the relevance and reference, but it also constantly harks back to classical literature and the Egyptians in particular: major religions and the Roman Empire all play a part in Geoff Thompson’s beautifully crafted and highly literary script, taken from his own stage play. And, even though it’s evident from the opening moments that this is an adaptation from the stage, that soon takes second place. What’s important is the story from the mouth of a former boxer who, in his way, is as articulate as one of his heroes depicted on the wall of the gym – Mohammed Ali.
Everything is geared towards the power of Cosmo’s performance, yet he never overpowers the film. It’s in black and white – the second boxing movie in a couple of weeks to do that, the other one being the Finnish The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki. The two couldn’t be more different: Olli Maki is essentially a romance, this one is more of a confession. The direction is restrained and so is the camera work, occasionally using Cosmo to narrate the shots of the young boxer. This is easily the best thing he’s ever done – which is saying something, given the longevity of his career – and may be one of the best pieces of acting you’ll see this year. It certainly was at Edinburgh in 2015, when he won Best Actor, sharing the award with Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years.
At which point, the risk of giving away too much rears its ugly head again. So two more things. See it. And then spread the word. Because this is a film that really deserves to be seen.
The Pyramid Texts is released on digital platforms on Friday 28th April.
Listen to our interview with James Cosmo here.