tue 26/09/2023

DVD: Marc Isaacs - Two Films | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Marc Isaacs - Two Films

DVD: Marc Isaacs - Two Films

Subtle British documentaries catch the nuance of behaviour

Wary engagement: Laura-Anne, right, in 'Someday My Prince Will Come'

There’s a nice pairing to these two character-led documentary films, as reflections on concepts of partnership presented from different ends of the spectrum of innocence and experience.

Treating innocence, Someday My Prince Will Come (2005) is the story of 11-year-old Laura-Anne, growing up in an isolated village on the Cumbrian coast, as she begins to engage with the boys around her.

There’s an almost conscious naivety, as well as plenty of humour in its observation of childhood, as the director follows his subjects over the course of a year in the deprived community in which they live, its “simplicity” somehow exaggerated by the rhyming couplets through which Isaacs has the girl present her own story. If that sort of script imposition might seem an example of directorial intervention gone too far, the effect actually comes across rather beguilingly, in tune with its subject and non-intrusive. With Philip and His Seven Wives, from 2006, we’re at the other end of the scale: its title may suggest maturity, but the uneasy attempt to create a polygamous family unit that the director follows in fact reveals deeply contrasting levels of confidence among those involved.

It’s as rum a story as a director could hope to come across

Isaacs is working in the best British documentary tradition – fellow travellers include the likes of Kim Longinotto and Sean McAllister, with Paul Watson something of a patriarch – of prolonged exposure to his subjects, allowing the texture of everyday lives to be caught in full, hopes and fears, tears and laughter; it’s a closeness only increased by Isaacs working as his own cameraman in both films. Isaacs reveals in the interview that comes as an extra on this Second Run release how in the process of defining potential interaction with Philip, he offered to work for three months virtually on a "trial" basis, with no promises either way beyond that – potentially awkward, he admits, given that he had already accepted funding from the BBC’s Storyville strand. (Prince was made for Channel 4 as part of a wider idea devoted to “first love”, but was never actually broadcast, the broadcaster’s priorities changing over the concept’s extended production period.)

Philip and His Seven Wives shows considerable sensitivity in treating its far from usual story. The titular character is a former rabbi who had that role revoked after he experienced (in his version) a visitation from God that convinced him that he was in fact a Hebrew King called to establish a covenant-style polygamous family (“Seven women shall take hold of one man”, and there's a matriarch, too: only one of the women was originally Jewish), complete with the no less patriarchal sideline of breeding horses. Direct comparisons between making horses "yield" and the women’s journey on their way to God aren’t the only things that disconcert. The whole process is mediated by regular meetings – part worship, part manifesto-charting – around the kitchen table (but complete with microphone!); the sense that Isaacs is included is total.

Marc Isaacs: Two FilmsIt’s as rum a story as a director could hope to come across, not least for the fact that it evolves in an otherwise very normal south coast location: the family’s everyday business, conducted with varying degrees of success, involves second-hand furniture in Hove. Do we come away intimidated by the sheer chutzpah of a delusional controlling figure who browbeats the women who have come into his orbit into acts as extreme as allowing themselves to be banished from the unit (and from their children), all at the whim of their master? To what extent can we accept Philip's version that it’s all part of their chosen route to God?

If the quiet anguish of some of the women (pictured above) speaks most powerfully, it’s set against their continuing to observe the rules of the world they have chosen. In brief extras to both films, Isaacs revisits his subjects. Philip is ebullient as ever, surprisingly self-aware – for such a supreme egotist – about his portrayal in the film. Did he regret allowing the director access? Not at all. The film closed with the birth of his eighth child: he now has 18. 

Isaacs is working in the best British documentary tradition of prolonged exposure to his subjects


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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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