Spout Mavens Disc #13: Wondrous Oblivion (2003)

Director: Paul Morrison
Pathé/Momentum, 1:46, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Last week, I wrote a piece about a film involving a young Brazilian lad with whom I was able to identify due to a shared love we both had for sport. In each case, it was a different, particular sport: mine, baseball; his, soccer. The connecting factor between us was that we both created worlds in which the trivia and paraphernalia surrounding each sport, rather than the sport itself, were the primary basis and focus of our individual obsessions. And each obsession was a way in which we could protect ourselves, sometimes to our detriment, from the familial strife surrounding us, though the boy from Brazil's problems perhaps a bit more political heft to them.

In Wondrous Oblivion, we meet another such lad, perhaps the third member of our party, though I am fairly certain that our true number, this group of game-obsessed, youthful dreamers, is in the tens of millions. Given the proliferation of fantasy sports leagues nowadays, perhaps this group has largely either moved fully beyond childhood for such matters, or childhood has now been stretched to Winsor McCay proportions. Regardless, David is a child of those displaced by the war, his parents being Jewish European immigrants. He and his family live in a home in a somewhat shabby area of London, though his father's successful grocery keeps the family getting on pretty well -- well enough to look for a bigger home in a better area -- and David in a boy's school, though he is generally not well accepted by the rest of his class.

Mostly, this is due to David being rather quiet and shy, and if they gave awards for portraying wide-eyed innocents for much of a film's running length as something near to a git, then the filmmakers would be rolling in the post-show bling. More than anybody else on earth possibly could, David loves cricket. The problem is that David sucks at it. Really, really sucks at it. Can't field, can't hit... the kid can barely throw the ball five feet, and never in a straight line. The one thing that kid has going for him is earnestness, though through my eyes, this just makes him seem a tad simple, and it seems to be that way for his schoolmates as well.

Enter the Samuels, the new next door neighbors from Jamaica. Mr. Dennis Samuels immediately erects an elaborate cricket net in their backyard, so they can practice bowling (what we would call pitching in baseball) and then hit the ball safely without smashing out every window in the neighborhood. Dennis has an adorable daughter named Judy with whom David will become enamored, mostly because she, too, is obsessed by cricket. Except her obsession stems from the fact that she is actually good at playing it, not just at mooning over the sport all misty-eyed.

This seems like the perfect scenario in which a withdrawn, cricket-mad lad can finally find the guidance he needs in the sport which he loves so much, sometimes to his detriment. Only, most of the neighborhood is unhappy with a black family moving in, and David's family is already under pressure due to their own racial background. When David becomes too close to the Samuels' family, David's parents will bear the brunt of the pressure from local racists and tsk-tsking neighbors, while David remains mostly encased in the comfort of his world where everything is cricket. Or what one of his teachers will describe as David's "wondrous oblivion."

This film, like the Samuels family for David, seemed like the perfect opportunity for myself as well. Unlike much of speed and power-obsessed America, where even baseball has become a "boring" sport, I actually enjoy a pastime even slower and more pastoral in nature. Even more so, I like being given chances to see the British love of cricket through more than just a random scene here or there. My pal Eggy leaped upon this knowledge and sent me a copy of the Bollywood film Lagaan a couple of years ago, and she was so right and wonderful to do such a thing. Right in my wheelhouse. I even watch the half-hour Cricket World wrap-up on one of the Asian cable networks every Sunday or so, and check the listings for that once-in-a-while test match that pops up on Fox Soccer Channel without any regularity whatsoever. So, to be handed a film that obsesses as much as its young protagonist over the sport seems too good to be true. Add to this the early '60s London atmosphere, the slow build of an integrated society, and a soundtrack filled with songs from the first wave of ska (a personal favorite genre of music), and it would seem that Wondrous Oblivion couldn't miss with me.

And yet, after 105 minutes of merely average drama, I was left wanting so much more. Not that I wanted anything terrible to happen to any of the main characters (except maybe David, who I wanted to punch in the temples every once in a while), but the mounting threat of the violence comes off almost cartoonish, like it wandered in from Absolute Beginners (where at least it seemed far more dangerous, even while being enveloped by lip-synced musical numbers). Everything in this film is all threat -- the possible romance between David's cute, marriage-stunned mother and Mr. Samuels (played by Delroy Lindo, an actor I have never really enjoyed much, in what may be his most perfect role) is all bluff, and ultimately plays false -- and even the cricket scenes are this way. Where I am pleased with the detail to the minutiae of the game, once David learns to play and even become one of the best in his school at the game, the film tails off and doesn't allow us to truly revel in his success. They try to compensate at the end with a scene involving some top-flight stars of the game, but there aren't any fireworks to it. It becomes as workaday as the rest of the film.

Even this "wondrous oblivion" David lives in really doesn't come off. The fantasy elements are too underplayed -- almost thankfully, since they are dreadfully done as it is -- for them too work in the piece at large. David's player cards, which he collects throughout the film, come to life in his eyes as he plays his tabletop games, and the effect strikes a note of discord with the rest of the film. It just doesn't match. And so, too, goes the phrase "wondrous oblivion." At the beginning of the film, his teacher says the phrase in reference to David, and somehow the kid picks it up as a personal catchphrase. He uses it whenever something strikes his fancy, but honestly, even though we are told he is a good student, David seems just a tad too daft to pick up on anything, especially a softly whispered minor insult. As a screenwriting device, and as a title, "wondrous oblivion" comes off as too forced.

As a film, though, it is anything but forced. It's a walk in the park where you meet a couple of scary muggers, but they are on their day off. It's wistful nostalgia without any sort of grounding on which one can plant their feet for a rest. I don't want to actually dissuade people from seeing it, as it is, on first glance, a well-made film. Their are decent performances from Emily Woof as the mother, and the aforementioned excellent Lindo. The ska music is fine, the party scene is teasing, and the cricket is grand. But don't read "well-made" as "well-crafted," though.

Wondrous Oblivion
is too caught up in its own fantasy that it is already doing everything right to really care to do it right. And that, on any field, is an "all out."


EggOfTheDead said…
We have an actual Indian guy (Calcutta) working at Pango now. He's been vigorously winning everyone's money at poker to fund our very own cricket team! I want to call it The PangoMedia Imperialists. Will keep you posted.

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