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Wilderness review – 'what comes after besotted?' | reviews, news & interviews

Wilderness review – 'what comes after besotted?'

Wilderness review – 'what comes after besotted?'

Improvisatory filmmaking underpinned by a magical jazz soundtrack

Languorous pace: Katharine Davenport and James Barnes in 'Wilderness'Andrew Wright / Baracoa Pictures

Wilderness has close-ups. And intimacy. And glorious empty beaches. A couple – John (James Barnes) and Alice (Katharine Davenport) – first meet outside the back door of a jazz club. They become completely infatuated with each other. We see them heading off to a seaside cottage in a 1960s Volvo sports car.

And then, gradually as we find out more about them, they also learn more about each other.

So, in an early scene, John says: “What comes after besotted?” And Alice replies: “Won’t we always be besotted?” The illusions, the "bubble" of their ignorance about each other and their desire for everything to be perfect between them gradually give way to more knowledge, more reality.

The period in which Wilderness has been set, presumably the late 1960s, allows a gorgeously languorous pace to take hold. If director Justin Doherty and screenwriter Neil Fox had set it in the present day, there would have been all the irritating and constant intervention from devices. The slow, careful pacing, the very gradual reveal, then, are completely deliberate. And the marvel here is how much that can be enjoyed on its own terms. Yes, the characters are inevitably going to see their ideal visions of each other taken apart, they are going to understand how the reality of the person with whom they have fallen in love might be very different from the ideal they have projected onto them, but let that take its time, let their delusions have as accompaniment the slow rhythm of waves breaking on a beach.

This enchanting film, made in 2016, is now being distributed on digital platforms. In the time since it had its premieres at festivals in 2017, it has picked up no fewer than 13 awards across the world, including three Best Actress gongs for Katharine Davenport, a brace for the screenplay and one for the music.

It isn’t just Cornish beachscapes. The main talking point which has emerged so far concerns the first moment when John and Alice encounter another person in a place they think of as their beach, and John suffers what looks for all the world like racial bullying from a gammon landowner. Fox has explained in interviews that what happens to John in the film happened to him as a lad from Luton, but the question as to why racism implicit in that scene isn’t discussed probably won’t go away.

The remarkable thing about Wilderness – it almost feels better not to be aware of it – is that it was made on a shoe-string budget. Shooting in Cornwall took just 12 days. The actors are professionals, but virtually the whole technical team was made up of students from the School of Film & Television at Falmouth University, where Neil Fox is a Senior Lecturer. Fox’s screenplay was not fixed at all. As Doherty has explained in a recent interview, they were able to use the fact that the writer was on hand throughout the filming as a virtue: “Neil wrote a framework for the actors to work around. He gave them a lot of breathing space.”

The improvisatory element in the script is also there in the music, which cleverly underpins, punctuates and propels the story forward. Justin Doherty, as well as being director of the film, is the guiding spirit behind the Bear Club in Luton, and has brought in Paul Jolly of the indie jazz label 33 Records to give jazz a strong presence in the film. The theme music at the beginning and the end is the unique cry of Ornette Coleman’s atmospheric “Lonely Woman,” played by a quartet led by saxophonist Tony Kofi, who worked with Ornette.

The music does indeed produce some magical moments. I keep in mind a very special alchemy at the end of Wilderness as the stillness of the couple contemplating their state of quiet languor (the aftermath of a game of strip poker) gives way to the final credits. The shimmering and wonderfully precise yet urgent sound of drummer Rod Youngs’s ride cymbal stays in the mind. It is all that is needed to bring a conclusion filled with momentum, joy and hope. Recommended.

The improvisatory element in the script is also there in the music


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Lovely review. I really enjoyed the film. The music is a really crucial part to it's success...and it's so well done. Thanks!

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