Judge Joel Pearce plays cricket in Times Square every December.
A wide-eyed boy in a narrow-minded world.
Rarely have I been so torn by a film that I've reviewed. On one hand, it's hard not to like Wondrous Oblivion. It has a strong cast, a heartwarming story, and an overall positive message. On the other hand, it can never get out from under the shadow of some far more impressive films of the same genre.
Facts of the Case
Cricket, to a North American audience, is a perplexing game. The rules themselves are frighteningly complex, and that's before you even start to piece together that nasty looking scoreboard. Somehow, though, David (Sam Smith), a young '60s British schoolboy, knows everything about cricket—except how to play it himself. He is relegated to scorekeeping.
Up to this point, David's family has been the odd one out on their street, as the only immigrants and Jewish to boot. They are looked down upon by their neighbors, but that's about to change quickly. You see, there's a new family moving in next door, and everyone is horrified to discover that it's a family of black Jamaican immigrants. Well, David isn't horrified, because they also put up a cricket practice field in the backyard. Dennis (Delroy Lindo, Domino), the father, takes David in and teaches him to play the game he loves. This causes a great deal of tension among the two families and in the larger neighborhood. It creates a special challenge for David's mother, Ruth (Emily Woof, The Full Monty), who is upset by David's choice of acquaintances, strangely drawn to Dennis, and grateful to no longer be the outcast in the area.
In terms of tackling issues of racism and immigration head on, Wondrous Oblivion is a smashing success. There is nothing subtle about the film's message, and there are some strong statements made by a number of the characters. This is especially true of the always reliable Delroy Lindo, who shows more grace and humanity in this role than any of the other characters deserve. He works hard to hide his frustrations with his new neighbors, and uses his friendship with David to show everyone that he belongs. After all, they're playing cricket, the most British of pastimes. It's only when things get completely out of hand that Dennis shows anger for the treatment he's found in his new home.
Indeed, everyone in the film has a different reason for embracing cricket. For David, his obsession is a way of showing how British he is by becoming an expert in the national sport. For his classmates, it's a boring old game that brings some excitement during tournaments, but proves to be a bit stodgy the rest of the time. For Dennis, it is something else entirely. The teams out of Jamaica and some of the other former colonies have brought the sport to an entirely new level. In fact, most of the best current players are black, not white, and Dennis proves to be a far better coach for the young boy than his snotty teacher ever was.
For all its charms, Wondrous Oblivion has a few frustrating drawbacks. The largest is the overall tone of the film, which isn't as light as it needs to be. That sounds strange in a review about a film that deals with racism and prejudice, but you'd expect director Paul Morrison, in the midst of ripping off Billy Elliot and Bend it Like Beckham, to catch the right tone. The situations and characters in Wondrous Oblivion are so consistently awkward that it's an almost painful film to watch. There is some comic relief, but it's not often enough to genuinely call this a comedy. Unfortunately, it has the wrong story arc for a drama as well, leaving it trapped in a strange genre limbo.
As well, there are a couple painful plot twists. The growing attraction between Ruth and Dennis is about the last thing we need here, in a film already jam-packed with issues and complex morals. The situation makes Ruth even more difficult to like, even when the script tries to backpedal her character in the third act. The dialogue between Ruth and Dennis is terrible, revealing that less thought was put into non-pivotal segments of the film. These situations make the film even more awkward and painful to watch.
I am a bit more positive about Palm's fine DVD release. The video transfer is progressively flagged, and shows no hint that it was converted from a PAL master. The colors are vivid and clear, and there is sharp detail in every scene. This is by far the best transfer I've seen yet from Palm Pictures, and I hope an indication of what's to come from the company. Palm has been acquiring some excellent properties, but this is the first time it has pulled together a near-reference quality transfer. Of course, there's a catch. The film was shot in 2.35:1, as can be seen in the special features, but it is presented here in 1.78:1. It's unclear whether they cropped the sides or opened up the top and bottom, but either way it's a disappointment. The sound is consistently excellent, with consistently clear dialogue, well-mixed music (including some great Mingus tracks), and subtle use of the surrounds. The only extra on the disc is a production featurette, which is really just a studio puff piece. There are some good interviews, though, all delivered in anamorphic widescreen.
With so much genuine tension, pain, and inequality on display, Wondrous Oblivion features one hell of a cheerful ending. Some stories simply cannot have all conflict resolved at the end, and this is one of them. This conclusion leaves a sickly sweet taste in the mouth, one that ruins the subtle bitterness and anger that drives the rest of the plot.
Wondrous Oblivion is almost a great film. It begins strong, but so many things chip away at that great opening. In the end, it's a charming but awkward little tale, much like David himself. While Palm has done a generally good job with the release, I can't recommend it strongly, thanks to the aspect ratio meddling. There have been better coming-of-age stories than this, better sports comedies, and better race-relation stories. Wondrous Oblivion doesn't accomplish enough to belong on a list with the best of any of these genres. It may be worth a rental, though, if it's your kind of film.
It's better than cricket, but Wondrous Oblivion drops the ball one too many times. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Production Featurette
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