'An Unflinching Eye': Richard Woolley and His Fierce Independents

Richard Woolley's rarely-seen films examine, with great political conviction, many social issues that are as pertinent today as they ever were.

Girl from the South

Director: Richard Woolley
Cast: James Woolley, Carolyn Pickles, Michelle Mulvaney, Sam Dale
Distributor: BFI (UK)
Studio: Yorkshire Arts, BFI
UK Release date: 2011-03-28

Presented for the first time on DVD, this four-disc box set, entitled An Unflinching Eye, contains the main works of Richard Woolley, a British director whose independent films of the ‘70s and ‘80s received much critical acclaim. Despite this, they are uniformly obscure and rarely seen in any format.

With an oeuvre sometimes reminiscent of Fassbinder, Woolley uses a bold style in each production (he draws heavily on the traditions of both experimentalism and social realism, often during the same film), and the content of each narrative includes a series of subject strands common to his work: the fragility of relationships; the politics of gender; the complications of marriage, wealth and social aspiration; racism and interracial relationships (these last two being particularly contentious in Britain during Woolley’s prolific phase, as the country was blighted at the time by racial discontent and poor social cohesion).

The first of the main quartet offered is Telling Tales (1978), which examines the emancipation of women and the economic and ideological differences between the British classes.

The film is a tour-de-force of invention. While the nucleus of the story about two couples (one, an upper middle class pair preparing for divorce, the other, a working class couple struggling with the daily grind and relationship boredom) drives the narrative, it’s the creative use of image and sound that give Woolley’s work such a fresh, striking feel.

For example, to visually convey the emotional disconnection of the divorcing husband and wife, Woolley allows himself extremely long, static takes (shot down the hall of their large house, looking into the dining room) during which nothing appears, the only sound being the couple’s discussion – off-camera – regarding the impending split.

The scenes featuring the working class couple are similarly innovative. In one key moment, despite them both speaking to each other from either end of the same room, they never occupy the frame together. Instead, they are separated at each end of a long tracking shot, and the space that is tracked between them is overlaid with the loud sound of a passing jet aircraft – that may or may not be diegetic – which once again symbolises the vast and widening ‘distance’ between the pair.

Artistically free of convention and very complex, Telling Tales veers – in the best possible sense – between powerful social observation and jarring frivolity; during one scene, major characters evoke the spirit of Brecht by addressing the camera directly, and during another, a romantic walk on a beach – featuring a third, less prominent couple - is shot tongue-in-cheek in the style of a cheesy soap opera or commercial, replete with cheerful easy listening pop music and clichéd soft focus landscapes.

In contrast to the experimentalism of Telling Tales, Brothers and Sisters (1981) is a slightly more conventional work. The film begins like a stereotypical thriller (it has an early orchestral score by the future Hollywood composer Trevor Jones, and it is very nicely lit and shot in 35mm), and features a story about a murderer on the loose (interestingly, Brothers and Sisters was made at the time a real serial killer – The Yorkshire Ripper – was at large in the same area of Northern England featured in the film).

Although this is Woolley’s most accessible film, it still embodies his trademark interests in gender, class and sexual politics, and features typically meticulous and inventive shot composition.

Following an initial prostitute’s murder, a subsequent police investigation identifies two upper class brothers, David and James Barratt (Sam Dale and Robert East), as primary suspects. Although they are at polar opposites politically (David is a self-styled left-wing ‘revolutionary’, whereas James is a right-wing army major), each sibling is similar in that they are both conducting extra-marital sexual relationships. As the net closes in and Woolley increases the tension and intrigue, the brothers share some revealing conversations, during which it’s evident that they both draw upon their respective political ideology in an effort to apply logic to their infidelity.

James is confident, unashamedly straightforward and misogynistic in his dealings with women, and he seems unconcerned when the finger points towards him. Conversely, David, ever the tortured intellectual, attempts to justify his subterfuge as some kind of sexually liberating, socially progressive ‘experiment’. This situation is best summed up by David’s mistress when, after hearing David refer to his brother as a bastard, describes them thus: “two of a kind you brothers are…..but at least he (James) is an honest bastard”.

Overall, Brothers and Sisters is an atmospheric, suspenseful and thought-provoking film, despite its rather unsatisfying conclusion (indeed, it’s the film’s finale that sets it apart from more standard thriller fare; no mainstream film would dare let the loose ends hang like this one does, denying viewers a satisfactory conclusion).

The collection continues with Illusive Crime (1976), a controversial film that garnered some controversy due to an infamous scene of sexual assault.

The film features an affluent married couple living in rural village. The seemingly benevolent husband actually keeps his wife trapped in the house; she is only heard and never properly seen onscreen. Apparently being investigated for some kind of political crime, she receives phone calls during which we hear her engaged in complicated political discourse (the unnamed male caller tells her to “forget all that rubbish and stay at home out of trouble, eh?”).

The film is very dense politically, sometimes to the point of indigestibility. Woolley’s usual themes are present (race, feminism, political ideology, the media), but it seems the director wanted to cram so much into the film’s 50-minute running time that he merely loaded a shotgun with everything he wanted to say, let rip, and organised the haphazard result into some sort of cohesive form (as it transpires, the controversial rape scene is unnecessary, and adds nothing to the discussion).

Illusive Crime symbolises the challenge faced by those on the margins, and their struggle to fight the system and the status quo, to be given a voice. The husband represents patriarchal authority and suppression, and the wife’s isolation in the house symbolically represents those resisting it.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its ingenious narrative structure and style, with a curious disjoint between sound and vision. The whole film is shot with non-sync sound, and with camerawork that captures stark and sudden close-ups. What soundtrack there is consists of exaggerated and stilted dubbed dialogue, off-camera narration, and clunky dramatic piano that is reminiscent of silent film drama (in one mind-bendingly voyeuristic scene, the camera gives us the wife’s literal first-person point-of-view, while a narrator speaks off-screen about what her husband is doing in front of her!).

The last main film in the set – and indeed Woolley’s final film as director -- is Girl from the South (1988), in which he once again examines notions of class, this time with a focus on race.

A young woman from an affluent family, Anne (Michelle Mulvaney), travels from her home in southern England to visit her grandparents in the north. Whilst there, she befriends a poor young black man, Ralph (Mark Crowshaw). As Anne begins to fall in love with Ralph, she develops an internal dialogue with herself – we hear this as her voiceover - describing what she is feeling, using the type of pseudo-poetic language found in romance novels. Anne’s sweet longing for Ralph merely reinforces the view that she is very naive.

After seeing that her new companion lives in very different circumstances to her own, Anne decides, unwisely, to rob her wealthy grandparents in order to help Ralph and his elderly grandmother. She begins to coerce Ralph into going along with the crime, but when he expresses reservations, Anne convinces him that she’ll tell the authorities it was her idea should the robbery go wrong. When it inevitably does, the subsequent situation fails to go as expected when Anne tries to claim responsibility, and what happens to Ralph forces her to confront the realisation that the world is occupied by people and organisations that harbour some form of political agenda. In this context, Woolley uses the dramatic turn of events to imply the alleged institutional racism that blighted the British police force in the ‘80s (“don’t mix with coloureds”, a pleading Anne is advised by a detective as Ralph is dragged away under arrest).

It’s no surprise that a filmmaker as artistically ambitious, academic and fiercely independent as Woolley playfully thumbed his nose at the mainstream for the majority of his career, and indeed he never really produced anything that could be described as wholly popular entertainment. After his prime output of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Woolley moved into film education – perhaps a natural progression of the studiously intellectual films he made - and he has since occupied various international academic posts.

Although Woolley moved away from the role of filmmaking practitioner, his legacy of films is extremely intelligent and socially aware. Woolley wears his structuralist influences on his sleeve (the aforementioned Fassbinder being a prominent one), yet his work is still uniquely his own and often unashamedly avant-garde in places. Woolley should be praised for his interest in social reform and equality, his bold use of symbolism and non-classical cinematic language, and his striking, inventive uses of sound and image.

Typically for a BFI release, this DVD set is abundant with extras. Included are three further short experimental films: Kniephofstrasse (1973), Drinnen und Draussen (1974) and Waiting for Alan (1984). Woolley himself also gives highly articulate video interviews to support each film. The picture quality of each production is good, although the two shot on 35mm – Brothers and Sisters and Girl from the South – obviously benefit from a much sharper picture quality.


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