mon 04/03/2024

This Blessed Plot review - a right old English carry on | reviews, news & interviews

This Blessed Plot review - a right old English carry on

This Blessed Plot review - a right old English carry on

Thaxted's past haunts its present in Mark Isaacs' pointed docufiction

Gooner show: Chinese filmmaker Lori shoots Arsenal fanatic KeithVerve Pictures

The hefty Essex builder Keith Martin, who plays a version of himself, as do most of the non-professional actors in Mark Isaacs' comic docufiction This Blessed Plot, is no Olivier or Branagh. But he puts brio and a touch of bombast into the dying John of Gaunt’s famous monologue lauding his ailing England in Richard II.

Keith (also a fence builder in Isaacs’ 2020 The Filmmaker’s House) performs the speech before the camera held by the protagonist Lori (Lori Yingge Yang), a young Chinese documentarist who has come to Thaxted to improvise a film.

A former anthropology student of Isaac, Lori is his onscreen surrogate. Much of what she sees confounds her. Why on earth would real-life Arsenal fanatic Keith keep in his impressive private Gunners museum the unwashed pair of shorts Aaron Ramsey gave him after one of his FA Cup Final appearances? Her bemused expressions bespeak her outsider’s perspective on this parochial white-bread town, which – with its Morris dancers (pictured below), 15th century guildhall, and “No” (to the EU) signs – is apparently sealed from modernity.

A narrative forms around Lori. Her guide and kindly advisor in Thaxted is the ghost, heard but not seen – except in footage from the Boulting brothers' documentary Ripe Earth (1938) celebrating Thaxted's pastoralism – of the Reverend Conrad Noel (1869-1942). The Christian socialist vicar, who antagonized his conservative congregants by displaying the Soviet and Sinn Féin flags in Thaxted Parish Church, adapted medieval ideas in his ministry, and was responsible for the town's folk dancing revival.

Lori is brought to the church by her warmhearted landlady Maggie (Margaret Catterall), whose late husband Jim (seen on video footage) was a passionate Morris man in more recent times. In the churchyard, where Maggie lovingly tends Jim’s grave, Lori first meets Keith, whose fictional situation parallels Maggie’s real one as a grieving spouse, his wife Sue having died a year previously.

Noel was a friend of the locally based composer Gustav Holst, whose “Mars, the Bringer of War”, from the Planets suite, is used hilariously by Isaacs when Keith loses his temper and gets into an altercation. It’s caused by a revelation about Sue. Her ghost (Susan Mallendine, from Isaacs’ 2007 It’s All White in Barking) has informed Lori she has qualms about the words Keith's chosen to have inscribed on her gravestone. 

That Keith loved Sue – they shared an affection for Rod Stewart – is beyond doubt; that he often neglected her to follow the Arsenal proves a crucial detail. Sue's lax bookkeeping of his accounts makes him call on his debt fixer brother-in-law Norman (Norman Culliss), a corpulent former London trader struggling with emphysema, to rescue him from HMRC tax collectors and their bailiffs.

Keith’s lugubrious mate “Uncle”, fresh from a prison stretch earned for money laundering (as was Paul Bettie, the actor who plays him), offers to settle Keith’s debts from the fortune he stashed with Sue, but Keith has reasons for turning him down. 

Isaacs’ playful ethnographic cinema reveals, non-judgmentally but with implicit irony, how white Anglo-Saxon English people steeped in the island’s traditions and prejudices see themselves and respond to people of different nationalities and faiths at a time of collapsing borders and multicultural flux. A user of Brechtian strategies, Isaacs permits bad acting because it draws attention to the truths that emerge.

When Keith blames his misfortunes on Lori and banishes her, the viewer has to decide whether it’s because she’s a foreigner or because she was jinxing him, as he claims, with her all-seeing camera. It says a lot for Adam Ganz’s script and Isaacs’ ability to suspend disbelief for these contrived events that we grow to care for the characters.

The phrase “This blessed plot” comes from John of Gaunt’s speech, as did the titles of the World War II propaganda movies This England (1941), The Demi-Paradise (1943), and This Happy Breed (1944), made when iterations of national pride helped maintain morale. But Isaacs’ title is ambiguous, more sharply pointed than the titling of Michael Winterbottom’s 2022 pre-Partygate miniseries This England, which starred Branagh as Boris Johnson negotiating the Covid crisis and had that bumbling Shakespeare scholar egregiously mouthing John of Gaunt's words.

Not that Keith’s rendering of them doesn’t give pause in an England – as John of Gaunt went on to lament – that “hath made a shameful conquest of itself” and is as divided now as it was in 1399.

Lori's bemused expressions bespeak her outsider’s perspective on this white-bread Essex enclave

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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