Wondrous Oblivion, 101 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas nationwide on 20 May 2004

Spin it Like Sobers?

Many films have used sport as a backdrop against which to explore other issues.  For example, in Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha, 2002) women’s soccer was used to look at the social pressures on a young English woman of traditional Indian background.

Cricket, in particular, has appeared in many movies over the years.  From The Final Test (Asquith, 1953) in which cricketer Dennis Compton appeared as himself, and  The Go-Between (Losey, 1970) to The Crying Game (Jordan, 1992) and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Gowaricker, 2001), cricket has been used as a dramatic device, often as a metaphor.  In Wondrous Oblivion, director Paul Morrison uses cricket as a means to explore the immigrant experience in 1960s London from several points of view, and to look at the coming of age of a young boy, and in a sense, his family and a whole community too.

The film’s protagonist is David Wiseman (newcomer Sam Smith), a young Jewish boy.  David’s parents are immigrants – his mother is German and his father is Polish – and David is mad about cricket.  Unfortunately, he’s no good at it, but still he lives for cricket.  He collects cigarette cards with cricketers’ pictures on them, he conducts imaginary Test Matches in his bedroom, and he has a full cricketing kit.  But he can’t play for nuts.  And even though his parents have scrimped and saved to send him to a “good school”, nobody there takes the time to teach him how to play. David, however, seems “wondrously oblivious” to all of this.  Until new neighbours move in next door, that is.

The new neighbours are Jamaican, and black. The father, Dennis, is played by Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X, Lee, 1992 and The Cider House Rules, Hallström, 1999). Lindo himself was born in Jamaica and came to live in England when he was 17.  The family loves cricket. They set up nets in their back garden, much to the consternation of everyone in the neighbourhood, except David, who is enthralled.

This sets up a fascinating social dynamic.  David is forbidden to go next door, but he can’t help himself.  His father tells him: “These are not our kind of people.  We have nothing against them, but we don’t mix.” But David appears at the fence, wearing his full cricketing rig, and the next thing you know Dennis is teaching David how to bat and bowl.  But this being 1960s London, that kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated for long, and things will eventually come to a head.

Along the way there is a little inter-racial and extra-marital romance, in scenes reminiscent of 2002’s Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes).  Too me, this is the least satisfactory part of the story.  It seemed a little “tacked on”.  Yet it does lead to some poignant moments, sensitively portrayed.

The film has an interesting look and feel – it’s not naturalistic.  It was shot mostly in the studio, and was lit so as to give it a luminescent quality.  There are charming fantasy sequences, such as when David’s cricket cards come to life (our own Richie Benaud features on one card).  And there are inserts of documentary film of cricket Test Matches (notably England vs. West Indies in 1963.  Photos of black people in London in the 1960s bring a touch of reality back to the film.

This is a small film, and by no means a Bend it Like Beckham.  But it is well cast and delicately acted.  It’s well written for the most part, and inventively crafted too.   It takes intelligent look at a fascinating slice of social history. But on top of all that, given that two of its characters are Sir Garfield Sobers and Frank Worrell, Wondrous Oblivion is a must-see for cricket-lovers.