The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki

(Hymyilevä Mies)

Based on a true story

The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Mäki, by director Juho Kuosmanen, is a vérité-style study of the eponymous boxer’s preparation for a home-turf title fight against a daunting American champ.  Permeated by a lyrical sense of bittersweet acceptance from its very first, perfectly composed frame, this marvelous biopic is less preoccupied with in-the-ring action than with the equally draining rigours of the publicity circuit. It punches its way into the upper ranks of cinematic pugilist portraits by virtue of its exquisite craft and a lead performance of heart-bruising melancholy by Jarkko Lahti.

Poster for the Finnish Oscar selection The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli MäkiOlli Mäki has a warm, crinkled humanity, cock-eyed humour and gorgeous, utterly immersive evocation of a less-distant-than-it-looks past that exert a surprisingly universal pull. Finland’s submission for Foreign Language Oscar, the film also had a well-deserved triumph in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition. 

The combination of fact-based, boxing-themed realism and vivid black-and-white imagery might tempt some into Raging Bull comparisons, but this is a far smaller, more guardedly tender work. Its exactingly constructed period milieu and textured, luminous aesthetic may actually put viewers more in mind of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida than any comparable sports picture.

The film introduces us to Mäki at the age of 25, three years after he won the European lightweight title as an amateur. His subsequently spotty record (dealt a blow by his removal from Finland’s 1960 Olympic team) gets a long shot at redemption when he’s offered a chance to compete in the first world title fight ever to be hosted in Helsinki. The catch is that it requires him to drop to the featherweight division – prompting a significant weight-loss program atop an already punishing training regimen. Cracking the whip behind him is his unrelenting manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff).

With the country in a flush of excitement over this major sporting showcase, Mäki is rapidly elevated to the status of national hero – a role that entails numerous tedious press conferences, glad-handing with Helsinki high society and ill-fitting advertising endorsements. That’s all anathema to the shy, self-effacing young fighter, who’d rather just be left alone with Raija (a delightful Oona Airola), the sweet, equally humble young woman for whom he falls head over heels at a wedding in their rural hometown.

What’s especially cruel about this hype machine (adding insult to anticipated injury, as it were) is that hardly anyone expects Mäki to beat American champion Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.), who is on an undefeated streak of 64 matches. Only Mäki himself seems able to admit this: ‘At least I won’t be losing to a bad fighter,’ he mumbles in one press conference, to the pained exasperation of Ask. Though it’s entirely unsentimental about the outcome – not one inspirational platitude escapes from any character’s lips – Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti’s script is fable-like in its celebration of modest self-acceptance over straining ambition, of emotional rewards over the spoils of victory.

Beautifully played by Lahti, whose tight, anxious face and progressively misshapen body betray an internal scream of stress, Mäki is among the most endearingly vulnerable boxers ever to spar on screen. The ‘Happiest Day’ of the title may refer to the day of the fight, but not ironically so; as Mäki gathers control of his feelings, the occasion comes to mean something else entirely to him.

Director Kuosmanen’s unassuming yet immaculate command of tone and form would impress at any stage of a career, but it’s entirely remarkable in a first feature. Design aficionados with a yen for Cold War kitsch should seek the film out for its production and costume design alone. Every advertising billboard, Dinky Toy-style car, stout-shouldered suit and salon-curled hairdo has been researched and recreated on screen in minute, besotted detail, yet nothing looks too new or too museum-plucked. Kuosmanen’s lovely debut has little time for easy nostalgia: It’s a period piece that shares its woebegone protagonist’s eye on better days to come.

– Guy Lodge, Variety

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