30 June 2008

EXODUS (Dir. Penny Woolcock, 2007, UK) - An ambitious undertaking

Set in a deprived Margate, Penny Woolcock’s allegory of the Exodus is an ambitious undertaking with a politically relevant set of ideas but it utterly fails to take shape as engaging and worthwhile cinema. The major reason why this film is a disappointment is largely due to the fact that the director, Penny Woolcock, has difficulty with clarity and coherence in terms of narrative and characterisation; the film feels like a number of different separate film projects and this makes it infinitely confusing.

It would be easy to elevate the critical status of this film by explicitly underlining the truthful socialist agenda and honest commitment Woolcock has always given to people living on the margins of contemporary British society, but to take such a position would be both disingenuous and unfair in trying to be impartial as one can about Exodus as a film. Though the central idea is clearly very fascinating and perhaps even quite clever for a low budget British film, it is exactly the lack of a proper budget that hampers Exodus from fully realising the big screen potential of it’s depiction of a future British society.

The artistic aspirations of Exodus constantly reminded me of another recent film about Britain in the future, the imaginatively brilliant ‘Children of Men’; a dark and moody masterpiece. Though ‘Children of Men’ was financed by a Hollywood studio, the Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, realised that to be able to live up the dispiriting imagery of the original source material would require a significant budget, and thus the power of this film is significantly reflected in the magnificence of the technical elements like the visceral use of camerawork. Unfortunately, Woolcock struggles to bring the sense of a fractured and nightmarish British society to life on screen, and at times it becomes quite obvious how this film could have benefited with much more financial support from the British film industry.

Exodus was shown at the London Film Festival in 2007 but distribution was a real problem, and the film bypassed most cinemas, going straight to DVD and appearing on Channel 4. ‘Children of Men’ benefits hugely from established actors like Clive Owen and Michael Caine, and though their screen presence did little to help make the film a success in the US, their contribution in terms of securing a more than adequate budget was crucial for Cuaron to be able make the film he had envisioned. Such a compromise can be quite useful for film makers working within the genre of science fiction, and if Woolcock had opted to cast perhaps more well known British actors in the lead roles then maybe she would have had a better shot at finding better indigenous financing.

The idea that some groups of people within contemporary Britain are made to feel like exiles in their own country is a vitally relevant issue today, and Woolcock’s innovative approach to debating immigration is refreshing, but no such debate takes place within a film that jumps erratically from one event to another. One of the key images around which Woolcock centres her film is the burning of Antony Gormley’s Waste Man sculpture, but though this is dazzling performance art, it does very little in supporting the film, even if it is referred to as a symbol of Dreamland’s collective resistance.

Penny Woolcock’s voice as a commentator on working class socialist themes and ideologies is as equally valid and important as that of Shane Meadows and Ken Loach, however, her status as a female director means that her contribution to British cinema may need to be championed more by critics and artists if she is to stand a chance of being taken seriously as a key British film maker. Her brilliantly funny, Mischief Night (2005), cleared demonstrated her excellence as a film maker who enjoys using social satire as a way of exploring contemporary themes prevalent within working class society. Woolcock is still evolving as a filmmaker, and though Exodus is a failure, it is nevertheless, an interesting one.

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