The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is the latest feature length offering from acclaimed Finnish writer/director Juho Kuosmanen. It tells the true story, albeit with a little artistic license, of the eponymous Finnish boxer Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) and his 1964 World Featherweight Title match against American Davey Moore. However, whilst the match itself plays an integral part to the film, Olli Maki is ultimately a film about love and staying true to oneself over following fame, fortune and the dreams of others.
Olli is put into situations that he is increasingly uncomfortable with by his friend and manager, former boxer Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) who lives vicariously through Olli. As such Olli’s love of the sport is increasingly pushed to the sidelines by his need to pander to high society sponsors funding his transition from amateur to professional boxing. This leads to him being forced further from the simple life he is used to and loves. Furthermore, during the course of his training Olli comes to the realisation that he is in love with his partner Raija (Oona Airola) who has a similar fondness for simplicity and disdain for the spotlight. As the film progresses Olli increasingly realises that what is truly important to him is not becoming a world champion or national hero but having a full, simple and loving life with Raija.
This focus on simplicity and its joyous place in the world is emphasised via every means by Kuosmanen. What it most immediately obvious is the fact that Olli Maki is filmed entirely in monochrome. Too often this can be used as a cheap gimmick in an attempt to make a film appear more artful than it might actually be. In this instance though its use feels extremely sincere, evoking the time period of the film and reflecting the titular character’s view that what is the best option for one’s life may not necessarily be the most evidently glamorous. There is an almost handheld feel to the shots, which focus largely on individuals, reflecting the fact that it is people and not fame and fortune that make life worthwhile and enjoyable.
During the course of the film Olli is followed by a documentary team, capturing his training regime and rise to fame. However, the shots created by this documentary team are largely fabricated with the director telling people when to answer the door, speak with each other and even asking Olli to box directly to the camera. It is as though the film itself ultimately becomes the ‘real’ documentary rather than that which is being created by the team that constantly hounds Olli to perform. We see the truly intimate moments in Olli’s life as he falls in love and becomes increasingly disillusioned with his upcoming bout. All that the documentary shows is the falsehood of a fighter in his prime, fully focused on preparing for the biggest fight of his career.
This documentarian feel is further enhanced by the cast and writers. Lahti, Milonoff and Airola all give wonderfully understated performances, which combined with the warm writing of Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti, give a sense that these are real people and relationships. While of course the story of Olli Maki’s fight with Davey Moore is a true one we have to accept that a certain amount of poetic license will have been taken with the character’s actions and the story going on behind the fight. So it is a testament to actors and writers alike that the viewer comes away feeling that this could all be exactly what happened in 1964, warts and all.
There is also a deft humour to Kuosmanen and Myllylahti’s script. One could argue that Olli Maki is ultimately a romantic comedy. However, it is certainly not what one would traditionally think of when the genre comes up. The humour is evoked less from jokes but rather the unintentional humour that can be found in people’s everyday conversations. A particular highlight is a conversation that takes place between Olli and Elis wherein Olli admits to his manager that he is distracted because he is falling and love and Elis retorts that he has chosen a terrible time to fall in love. The film is interspersed with many exchanges such as this, which to those involved in them are perfectly reasonable and serious, yet to us as outside observers are comedic. Kuosmanen and Myllylahti clearly have a strong understanding of the way in which people speak with one another in everyday life and how these situations can be manipulated to comedic effect.
Olli Maki is ultimately a highly successful comedy film and the primary reason for this is that it no way feels like it is trying to succeed. Nothing is forced. We are not assaulted with joke after joke and the heart strings are not pulled at to make us wonder whether or not Olli and Raija will end up together. It is a simple and sincere film and one cannot help but feeling a little whimsical in watching it, but it is a whimsy for the joy and wonder that can be found in the most everyday of things.
Words by Jon Heywood
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is released in the UK on April 21 and streams on MUBI this Spring