Something Wicket This Way Comes

Washington City Paper | July 21, 2006
A rather more predictable boy-meets-ball tale, Wondrous Oblivion is a little glib about the transformative power of sports—in this case, cricket—but clear-eyed about racial and ethnic conflicts. The Wisemans, Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, have been tentatively accepted on their block of modest terraced houses. There are some tensions between brusque, Polish-born Victor (Stanley Townsend) and his more playful German-born wife, Ruth (Emily Woof), who seems a little young for him. But their 11-year-old son, David (Sam Smith), faces his major challenges not at home but at his upscale private school: He loves cricket but can’t use this enthusiasm to win over his classmates because he’s hopeless at the game. Instead, he fantasizes about the players on the cards he collects—which, in the film’s cutesiest touch, come to life for his eyes only.

David’s position in the world changes dramatically when the Wisemans get new next-door neighbors, the Samuelses, who are from Jamaica. To David’s delight, Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo) sets up a cricket pitch in his postage-stamp backyard, where he coaches his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott). David and Judy are about the same age, and soon Dennis has invited the boy over to play. For David, the results are spectacular: His skills burgeon, and he gets a place on the school team. The Wisemans, however, pay a price for consorting with their darker-skinned neighbors, whose arrival on the block is a local scandal. Then David, thrilled that he’s now accepted by his schoolmates, panics under pressure and snubs Judy. Meanwhile, Dennis and Ruth are getting a little too friendly.

This is the second feature from writer-director Morrison, whose Solomon and Gaenor observed a disastrous romance between Jew and gentile in early-20th-century Wales. As he did in that movie, the filmmaker musters convincing performances and vivid local color and shows a deep understanding of conflicted families. With its pre-adolescent protagonist and easy ethnic-tolerance moral, however, Wondrous Oblivion is hardly the grown-up inquest into cross-cultural misunderstanding that Morrison’s previous movie was. Solomon, Gaenor, and their respective communities were all distrustful and even duplicitous, and their travails owed as much to their own flaws as to the intolerance of the society around them. The Wisemans and the Samuelses are simpler and, rather blandly, essentially blameless. They may not always do the right thing, but the film suggests that their errors are forced on them by small-minded postwar London.

Made in 2002 and previously shown at the 2004 Washington Jewish Film Festival, Wondrous Oblivion is making its U.S. theatrical debut at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, D.C. The film deserves a bigger rollout than it’s getting, if only for its cogent period imagery, which mixes archival footage with Solomon and Gaenor cinematographer Nina Kellgren’s shadowy interiors, and Lindo’s charismatic performance. Yet the film’s evocation of ’60s Britain is perhaps too successful: Despite moments of humor and rage whose implications are universal, it seems overly comfortable with its distance, as if to say that these sort of conflicts could have happened only long ago, in a Europe where sports had yet to banish parochialism.

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