Richard Woolley: An Unflinching Eye Review

I must admit that Richard Woolley wasn’t a name I was familiar with when I received this four-disc retrospective from the BFI – and I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Wikipedia, too, has no recollection of the auteur and my chief source of biographical information was his somewhat puffy website bio. However, after watching this collection of feature-length and short films, it’s apparent that the BFI have done valuable work in preserving the efforts of this unique and sorely overlooked director.

Disc one contains two of Woolley’s early German productions, the first; Kniephofstrasse is the most plainly experimental in the collection. It is a series of long black-and-white shots of an intersection on the outskirts of Berlin, set alternately to hypnotic organ music and looped ambient sounds, while the narrator repeatedly asks the viewer to answer the question “is there too much noise in the environment?” It’s a mesmerising thirty minutes that reveals the director’s avant-garde leanings. Illusive Crime might be considered the point where Woolley first establishes his true voice though, a furious polemic on the marginalisation of women. The quote on the cover, “We are all voyeurs in the cinema, often at the expense of women” is taken from the internal monologue of the protagonist and serves as the central idea of the film. It’s the story of an affluent rural housewife, whose face we never see, as she is visited by the police in her husband’s absence on the grounds of an unknown, probably non-existent, crime and brutally raped by the officers. The horror of this scene, largely audio, is compacted by her husband’s refusal to believe his wife, putting her claims down to hysteria.

Disc two contains Woolley’s first feature-length outing, Telling Tales. The opening act introduces us to a couple – a wealthy company owner and his wife – whose marriage is failing. The wife alleges her husband has had an affair with his friend Paul’s, whom he intends to sell his business to, terminally ill wife Ingrid. At the end of the opening scene, the wife breaks the fourth wall (a feature recurrent through the collection) to narrate the story of Paul’s meeting Ingrid, falling in love and later the diagnosis of Ingrid’s Leukaemia, all shot in colour and running parallel to the present-day drama.

Brothers and Sisters is an altogether more conventional work from Woolley, but one which nonetheless continues the feminist theme. It’s a well-constructed mystery about the murder of a Leeds prostitute. Using a non-chronological order, the film looks at two suspects, a pair of upper-class brothers, one a caddish army major and the other a commune-dwelling lefty whose radical attitude to gender relations is undermined by his womanising behaviour. The film combines its social conscience, as well as looking at contemporary attitudes to women, institutional racism and scornful attitudes to the police force, with a well-executed, suspenseful plot, managing to strike a balance between entertaining storytelling and finger-pointing polemic, buoyed by good acting performances from Sam Dale and Carolyn Pickles.

Pickles also stars in the short Waiting for Alan, which revisits the trapped, affluent housewife setting of Illusive Crime, albeit in a markedly more light-hearted manner. After witnessing a day in Pickles’ dull domestic life, the heroine suddenly breaks the fourth wall over her knitting to complain of her stagnant marriage and of years of crushingly boring routine. If stuffy husband Alan doesn’t do something different tomorrow, we’re told, she’s going to do something about it. Waiting for Alan is probably the most outright enjoyable piece in the collection, a witty, slight tale unencumbered by any hefty message. Girl from the South, the main feature on disc four, is the most recent film in the collection. Putting the feminism on the back burner and instead focussing on class prejudice and race, it’s the story of a young rich girl who, on her annual summer trip to her grandparents in the north, ventures into the poorer part of town in search of romance (inspired by her Mills and Boon habit). After falling for a young mixed-race man, she becomes aware of the unfairness facing the have-nots and clumsily attempts to address the imbalance, with tragic consequences. Sadly, there’s not a great deal to recommend Girl from the South, it’s serviceable TV drama but looks a little pedestrian and artless after more ambitious fare.

This collection reveals an interesting, varied body of work that shows Richard Woolley to have been a director of no small ambition and talent; well worth watching.

Adam Richardson

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