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Review: Rugby romance ‘In From the Side’ struggles with deeper issues

two men with beards look at each other with their faces close together
Alexander Lincoln, left, and Alexander King in the movie “In From the Side.”
(Strand Releasing)
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For a movie that was financed via Kickstarter and made for around $60,000, the romantic sports-drama “In From the Side” is an especially well-filmed, acted and mounted effort.

It’s a sexy, often engaging tale of love and lust on — and off — the pitch as two players on a gay rugby team, the South London Stags, fall for each other amid thorny circumstances.

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But for all its pluses, including a refreshing lack of clichés, the movie, from multitasking British filmmaker Matt Carter (he directed, shot, edited, scored, co-cast, co-costumed, plus co-wrote with Adam Silver), insufficiently explores its central theme of romantic commitment — or lack thereof — and it’s a bit of a dealbreaker.

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This flaw tends to keep us at arm’s length from main characters Mark (Alexander Lincoln) and Warren (Alexander King), B-level and A-level players, respectively, for the two Stags, who land in bed after a flirty, boozy night at a local bar celebrating the season’s first game.

The next morning, despite the guys’ fiery attraction, when Warren reveals he has a boyfriend — fellow Stags member John (Peter McPherson) — it looks like Mark and Warren will be one and done. That Mark also has a longtime partner — wealthy, oft-traveling businessman Richard (Alex Hammond) — adds to the complications, even if Mark and Richard have an open relationship (with a few made-to-be-broken rules).

Still, Mark and Warren find they can’t resist each other and begin a secret affair. It’s an emotional and romantic roller coaster that the guys manage to keep under wraps — through evasion and deception — until the inevitable occurs and the largely unsentimental script shifts into melodrama.

Unfortunately, without a deeper and more nuanced look at monogamy, cheating and loyalty, particularly the slippery slope that can result when a couple sanctions outside dalliances, it’s hard to root for Mark and Warren as much as we might like.

The attractive couple seemingly has the trappings to make their pairing work. But there’s an internal disconnect preventing them from romantic success: What’s really drawing them to each other as people, as potential soulmates? And, despite their excuses, really, why can’t they move on from their respective boyfriends? We also never see any real chemistry or connection between Mark and Richard and, even less so, Warren and John, to justify the weight of either of those relationships.

In addition, Mark too often comes off as surly or sanctimonious around Warren, as if the A-player is the only one of them mishandling their affair. It should make Mark, his good looks aside, a less appealing love object for Warren, who nonetheless remains smitten — and increasingly so.

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A Christmastime trip, in which Mark and Warren, misleading their partners, take off together for Switzerland to visit Mark’s parents (Mary Lincoln, Nigel Fairs), makes for a scenic and, at times, poignant interlude. But the segment goes on too long for its own good, as does the film in general. (A serious trim throughout could’ve made the movie peppier and more propulsive.)

A handful of surfacy snapshots are also featured involving such other Stags members as Mark’s maybe-alcoholic, needy buddy, Henry (Will Hearle); the good-natured Pinky (Pearse Egan); supportive team captain Jimmy (Christopher Sherwood); and the snide Gareth (Carl Loughlin).

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More attention is given to the team’s financial woes that are forcing its owners to consider disbanding the B-squad. This adds pressure to Mark and Warren’s affair: Will their cross-tier coupling sink the Stags entirely?

But it’s a somewhat blurrily presented notion and, for all the consternation around it, feels too “inside baseball,” er, rugby, to impact the guys’ romance in a relatable enough way.

Regarding the rugby itself, Carter presents the game as is, without much guidance for the unenlightened, though anyone familiar with American football will get the gist. No matter, Carter vividly captures one of his country’s top sports in all its raucous, pile-driving, muddy glory, frequently using slow motion to super-expressive effect.

He also depicts that overwhelming first flush of passion between new lovers with authentic vigor and films Mark and Warren’s many trysts with equal parts respect and steam. Lincoln and King decidedly bring the heat as well.

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Kudos also to the superbly rousing, 1980s-style, closing-titles song, “By Your Side,” written and performed by, you guessed it, Carter.

As for the movie’s cryptic title, it refers to an illegal rugby move but, in Carter’s words, “also has a double meaning of a third person coming into and disrupting a situation or relationship from an unexpected place.” It will be interesting to see what this capable filmmaker does his next time around with, hopefully, a larger budget and a few more objective voices helping to guide his choices.

'In From the Side'

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.

Playing: Starts Jan. 20, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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