A young Jewish kid in '60s England finds social fulfillment through his love of cricket in "Wondrous Oblivion," latest entry in the burgeoning field of sport-as-social-healer pictures. This second feature by Paul Morrison looks set for moderate innings at theatrical wickets.
A young Jewish kid in ’60s England finds social fulfillment through his love of cricket in “Wondrous Oblivion,” latest entry in the burgeoning field of sport-as-social-healer pictures. Full of charming moments, but swinging hither and thither between mainstream entertainment and an over-cooked anti-racist tract, this second feature by Paul Morrison looks set for moderate innings at theatrical wickets rather than the higher score it could have batted in the hands of a more commercially oriented director.Though made far more for adults than tykes, film recently won the top prize at Italy’s Giffoni kidfest; U.K. preem is scheduled at the Edinburgh fest Aug. 17, followed by a nationwide release in October. Pic follows other non-U.S. movies in which sport acts as a national booster. Indian yarn “Lagaan,” set during British Empire days, also dealt with cricket; soccer was kicked around by both “Mean Machine” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” Upcoming are Soenke Wortmann’s German soccer dramedy, “The Miracle of Bern,” and Mel Smith’s contempo British comedy, “Blackball,” centered on, uh, lawn bowling. Despite its sports theme, “Oblivion” has several parallels with Morrison’s debut pic, “Solomon and Gaenor” (1999), an artsy but interesting Romeo and Juliet-like drama set in the Welsh Valleys in 1911. As well as sharing a subtext of tolerance, and stirring in some socio-political background, “Oblivion” even has a similarly downbeat, chiaroscuro look in its interiors, with Nina Kellgren encoring as d.p., though this time in widescreen. Only in the brighter exterior scenes featuring cricket does the movie, in tandem with Ilona Sekacz’s buoyant score, give hints of the pure crowd-pleaser it could have become. Setting is a working-class neighborhood in south London, 1960. David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is an 11-year-old Jewish kid whose parents — Polish-born tailor Victor (Stanley Townsend) and his young German-born wife, Ruth (Emily Woof) — have poured everything into giving him a good education at a posh private school. Cricket is David’s obsession, but the closest he comes to playing it is with cigarette cards of famous players. (In an unnecessary, rather spotty fantasy strand of the movie, these take on a life of their own in his eyes.) When a Jamaican family moves into the neighborhood, the vanilla residents are horrified. Despite his parents’ warnings, David cautiously becomes pals with the father, Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo), who’s also a cricket nut. Opening reels are played in a light enough way, with white neighbors registering shock at the Samuels blithely laying out a cricket pitch and protective nets in their back garden, where Dennis coaches his young daughter, Judy (Leonie Elliott). Production designer Eve Stewart’s large studio set (built at Shepperton) for the adjacent back gardens gives the film a slightly unreal look, which actually works well alongside Kellgren’s lensing, digitally re-graded to give a slightly grubby period feel, and Anushia Nieradzik’s detailed costuming. When David turns up one day in full cricket gear to play in Dennis’ garden, the movie really looks like it’s getting going, but it soon becomes clear writer-helmer Morrison has several other fish to fry. David’s mother Ruth finds herself drawn to the older, kindly Dennis — a relationship that progresses by increments into something that threatens to get out of hand. Meanwhile, David, with Dennis’ coaching, has improved his game, and he’s finally given a chance by his cricket coach, Mr. Pugh (Jo Stone-Fewings, in a dryly ironic performance), to play on the school team. However, as David is “accepted” by his English schoolmates, a rift opens between the Wisemans and Samuels. Then David is selected for a vital cricket match against another school. Pic often works well, with some beautifully observed comic moments — Angela Wynter is especially good as Dennis’ naively friendly wife — but there’s an unsettling tug between several different movies trying to get out. One, about race relations in early ’60s Britain, is initially launched through some over-expository dialogue between David’s parents and boils over near the end in an attack by some white youths that temporarily derails the pic. Another movie is the affair between Ruth and Dennis, which contains some of the most sensitively played and directed scenes in the movie, but is flawed by the characters being too schematic. As Ruth, Woof sports an oy-vey accent you could cut with a knife, and Lindo is saddled with a goody-two-shoes black character who’s only allowed one brief scene to show any anger. The third movie, and the one which should dominate, is that of David and cricket, a clear metaphor for learning to grow up wanting “to be in a team” (in the words of Pugh). In a willful decision not to go for the more commercial option — a finale centered around the crucial cricket match — helmer-writer Morrison ends on a rosy but quieter note, over-obviously celebrating solidarity between minorities rather than a broader message. That’s a shame, as the picture works best as a pan-human comedy with warm touches, rather than as a finger-wagging lecture. Still, despite the blandness of his character, Lindo is very good as gentle giant Dennis, communicating a real joy in cricket that spills over into Smith’s likable, unexaggerated perf as David. Playing, in general, is of a high standard, with Townsend quietly impressive as the kid’s wise father.