"A mythic world where the life of the grandfather belongs to fable in the eyes of the grandson..."
It's often said that films hold up a mirror to our lives, possessing the ability to reflect the ordinary and imbue it with greater meaning. This is especially true of the documentary format, which acts like a time capsule, chronicling a place and time which ceases to be in its recorded form even a second after its capture through a camera's lens. One of my favorite documentaries of recent years is Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously (2008), an elegiac hymn to the landscape of Trefeurig, a small and sadly dwindling agricultural town in Ceredigion, Wales. Koppel's film, described by IMDB as "a poetic and profound journey into a world of endings and beginnings; a world of stuffed owls, sheep and fire", looks to a mythic world where the life of a grandfather belongs to fable in the eyes of the grandson. Way Of The Morris, a beautiful new documentary from actor-turned-director Tim Plester, evoked many of the same qualities for me, yet somehow retains an identity all of its own. It's about Morris dancing, an English tradition which for many is a source of embarrassment, and something to be ashamed of. This is an important film, for it holds up a mirror to a part of our culture which we have foolishly sought to erase. In fact, it should be celebrated.
The film begins with an earthy animation - almost like a cave painting come to life - which relays the story of the old red fox who "danced the world into being", rhythmically ploughing the fields for their first harvest ("The first barley and the first wheat"). The next scene propels us forward in time, yet still locates us in the past. Old Super 8 footage reveals Plester as a boy, playing with his grandfather in the hills of Adderbury, his home town, accompanied by a voiceover from the director. His articulation of memory is unusually poetic, personifying the intimate through thoughtful verse. For example, he recalls those days with his grandfather through the lens of the Super 8, "unfolding gently at 18 frames per second, and accompanied by the wearing flicker flicker of the camera's in-built motor." His attention to detail is quite fascinating; the way his mind collects every detail to ultimately paint a living illustration (much like the opening with the fox). His subdued vocals inform much of the films tone, perfectly complementing Adrian Corker's gorgeous original score, a twinkling folk rhapsody which calls to mind Morris On, the classic rock album which brought Morris to the masses in the early 1970's.
DoP Richard Mitchell shoots the landscape as if it belonged to one of Aesop's tales, imbuing the dewey fields and old-world architecture with a mythic quality which again recalls Sleep Furiously. The opening tableaus are among the most beautiful I've seen all year, and they reminded me of several little villages I've come across in my time - places off the map which hold centuries of history. I can relate to Adderbury somewhat, as my home town of Alcester has unearthed many Roman remains. There's also a great ease to the camerawork, which is uncommon for the documentary format, as it so often prods and probes into the lives of its subjects. Those documentaries would be about secrets and tragedies; the image it reflects is a worrying one. Way Of The Morris presents a heartwarming reflection, and that ease comes from Plester's intimacy with the locals. They're his people - his family, friends and neighbors.
But most impressive is the way Plester merges several story arcs into the 64-minute running time (actually, it barely qualifies as a feature). The main story is about Adderbury and its locals, but two thirds into the film the Morris men take a journey to Pozières in Northern France, to visit the Somme, or more specifically the graves erected for those who lost their lives in its savage battle. Only one Adderbury man returned from its bloodthirsty grasp, and his shadow looms large over the contemporary way of life. Indeed, there's probably not a local who doesn't know his name. The sequence at the Somme is deeply moving, and really helps solidify that sense of community - it's about honour and remembrance. Plester doesn't sentimentalize, he observes. There's so much truth in the singing of an Adderbury tune at the foot of the memorial that it catches the viewer off-guard. It's quite beautiful.
I watched Way Of The Morris on a distinctly chilly English evening, accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate and some shortbread biscuits. The experience was akin to eating Cornish ice cream or enjoying a pint of Somerset cider; there's something warming about how homegrown it feels. I'm not embarrassed to admit this. It was an absolute delight.
It's a shame this one hasn't been made available on Blu-Ray, because Mitchell's photography is incredibly striking and captures a unique landscape which the cinema has never seen before. The extras are surprisingly wealthy too, comprising a series of trailers, an SXSW interview (via The Guardian) and two commentaries. The first is an interesting filmmakers commentary from Curry, Plester and Rob Young, detailing the origins and production of the project. The second is from the Morris men themselves, which feels a lot like wandering into a quaint English town and eavesdropping on the locals as they wile away the hours at the local tavern. Wonderful.
Way Of The Morris was released on DVD on October 3rd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.