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     Volume 5 Issue 105 | July 28, 2006 |

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Book Review

The movie man

Peter Bradshaw

The exotic and occult history of the British film industry was shrewdly mined by Jonathan Coe in his What a Carve Up!, while Matthew Sweet's factual study Shepperton Babylon opened our eyes to the richness and strangeness of a neglected culture. Now novelist James Wilson has entered this territory with his intriguing story of an imaginary prewar film director called Henry Whitaker, who graduates from directing ropey, state-sanctioned "quota quickies" to inventing his own surreal hybrid of the documentary form, but ultimately becomes self-destructively obsessed with one single project: a sprawling film entitled Ordinary. This crazed, cracked, unfinished movie is essentially inspired by his poignant encounters with a German prostitute, the widow of the soldier who had killed Whitaker's father in the first world war.

The Woman in the Picture
James Wilson

The novel takes in tweedy closet lesbians, brilliant German cameramen and Nazi officials with eyes like "glacier mints". Whitaker narrates his story in tandem with his grown-up daughter Miranda in the 21st century, who in her journals and emails to a film historian broods over her troubled relationship with her father and also the fate of her mother, whose death and identity are mysteries hovering between these two fictional voices.

Whitaker is at least partly derived from the real figure of Humphrey Jennings, a veteran of the English surrealist movement and the Mass Observation project. Wilson cleverly recreates a tatty, brittle 30s England and the young-man-in-a-hurry who would have wanted to make his name there. He is particularly good on the kind of educated, progressive leftist who wanted to dive creatively into working-class neighbourhoods, with a distinctive mix of idealism and ethnographic condescension. There are teas and beers in coffee houses and pubs and despairing sex which reminded me of Patrick Hamilton.

Whitaker secures himself a kind of apprenticeship to the established Brit movie potentate Arthur Maxted, who believes that he could be a great talent. So does Whitaker. But that German woman is a painful problem from real life, from which the director recoils into the protective enclosures of art; this recoil is to power his creativity and obsessive drive.

Wilson has a great deal of material to work with and a wealth of different ideas, but he is not entirely in control of all of it: the central mystery of Miranda's mother is not exactly answered, yet neither is it emphatically unanswered. However, real life is arguably messy and disordered in this way, and Wilson's book is very good at recreating the real life that slops inconveniently around the finished, rectilinear perfection of art. He is terrific on the period furniture of both provincial England and metropolitan Germany, and the pinched, thin-lipped speech patterns of the English middle classes. The Woman in the Picture may leave you perplexed and baffled, but not before it grips with a tale of oedipal obsession and a fragmented, damaged past.


Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006



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