Bend It Like Beckham review

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Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) loves football. It loves her back. Blessed with silky skills, obsessed with Becks and content to embarrass her male friends down the park, she's challenged to play seriously when precocious striker Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley) invites her to join all-girl team the Hounslow Harriers.

Trouble is, her folks aren't enamoured of her hobby. "What family will want a daughter-in-law who can kick a football but can't make round chapattis?" wails her mum (Shaheen Khan), while dad (Bollywood star Anupam Kher, in an impressive English-language debut) harbours resentment over the racism he encountered playing sport in his adopted country. So, will Jess continue to play? Can she overcome ethnic slurs and gender bias? Will she win the heart of dreamy coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)? And can she, eventually, bend a free kick like Beckham?

You've got zero guesses. This is a sports comedy, not Se7en. The film's pleasure lies not in the cliché-heavy plot, but in the characters and performances. Nagra ably carries the movie, imbuing Jess with the perfect mix of strength and vulnerability (and totally convincing in the excellent football scenes), while Khan, Kher and Archie Panjabi (as Jess' sister Pinky) keep her strident family likeable. Juliet Stevenson is great fun as Jules' comically ignorant mum, while Rhys Meyers, so spectacularly loathsome as the villain in Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil, overcomes his smackable mug to convince as a romantic lead.

As with Gurinder Chadha's previous films, Bhaji On The Beach and What's Cooking?, the underlying theme is of tolerance and friendship, but it's never overplayed. The strain of soppy optimism may irritate viewers who savour comedies with grit, but when so many films opt for crushing nihilism (or, in many cases, inspire it), it's refreshing to have a feelgood alternative.

A funny, heart-warming and romantic comedy that's less about football than it is about friendship, family and love. Enjoyable, if never surprising, it's likely to leave you grinning like a fool.

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