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Jewish Journal

British Jews’ ambivalence up to bat in ‘Wondrous’

Is it cricket?

by Tom Tugend

November 16, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Writer-director Paul Morrison grew up in London the grandson of Russian immigrants.

Writer-director Paul Morrison grew up in London the grandson of Russian immigrants.

David Wiseman is a 12-year-old Jewish boy growing up in London in the early 1960s, and his passion is cricket. He spends most of his free time rearranging and talking to his card collection of British and West Indian cricket greats, who in turn talk back to him.

Only a faint shadow mars his devotion to the game. David himself is a bit of a klutz, the worst player on the school team, and he is finally relegated by the contemptuous coach to keeping score.

The movie about David, his immigrant parents and the changing neighborhood and country in which he grows up was originally called, "Outfielder," a title that might have attracted legions of unwitting baseball fans in the United States. Now, the more awkward title is "Wondrous Oblivion," and if that turns off potential viewers, it will be their loss.

Made in Britain, the movie is at once a warmhearted, yet realistic, portrayal of adolescence, an exploration of not-so-genteel racism and a commentary on the ambivalence of being a Jew in England.

Writer-director Paul Morrison, who is both a working psychotherapist and filmmaker, explained in a phone call from London that he settled on "Wondrous Oblivion" to describe both "the blinkered innocence" of David toward his athletic ineptitude and of the England of that era toward its deep-rooted racism and distrust of foreigners. That racism rises to the surface in the movie's quiet South London street of modest homes, when a dark-skinned Jamaican family moves into the house next to the Wisemans.

The father of the new family is Dennis (Delroy Lindo), an athletic type, and his first job is to turn the small backyard into a minicricket field by enclosing it with meshed nets and plowing under the rose beds.

After watching Dennis teach his daughter, Judy, cricket strokes, David ventures over, despite the disapproval of his parents, insecure immigrants from Poland and Germany, who are under pressure from the rest of the street to ostracize the newcomers.

Under the Jamaican's personal coaching, David's game improves remarkably, to the point that he is elected his school's cricket captain. At the same time, the boy tutors Judy in math, and a close friendship develops between them.

But trouble follows as some neighborhood teenagers turn from throwing rocks at the "yids" to harassing the "niggers." To complicate matters, David's young, repressed mother, whose husband thinks only about his drapery business, falls for the muscular, gentle Dennis.

The movie ends somewhat unconvincingly, and filmmaker Morrison acknowledged that in an initial draft of the screenplay, he envisioned a different conclusion but opted to tie things together, perhaps to counter his own depressive mood.

It may help to be an Anglophile and cricket fan to appreciate some of the film's nuances, but the excellent performances require no translations. In portraying a young boy's transition from childhood to an awareness of life's complexities, actor Sam Smith grows before our eyes.

Sam's mother is Jewish and his father Christian, but the family is secular, and Sam painfully had to learn Hebrew for the film's celebration of the bar mitzvah he never had in real life.

By contrast, Morrison grew up in London with Russian immigrant grandparents, "who were anarchists and 100 percent Jews," and parents who helped found the first Reform synagogue in London. Starting as a TV documentary filmmaker, Morrison tackled his first Jewish topic in a four-hour series on British Jewish identity, "A Sense of Belonging."

His first feature film, "Solomon and Gaenor," set in a Welsh mining town around 1911, chronicled the romance between a young Jewish peddler and a devout Christian girl. The movie, with dialogue entirely in Welsh and Yiddish, was a surprise hit and won an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film in 2000. While growing up in the 1950s, Morrison's Jewish world "was insular and depressed and carried with it some shame. We were told in school that the Holocaust was the Jews' own fault for not fighting back. My parents' generation felt that they were in Britain on sufferance, that it was best to be invisible and not make waves."

Morrison returned to his Jewish roots in his thirties, and, at the same time, found "a hole in the market. There were no Jews on television, except when it was about the Holocaust or Israel. I decided I wanted to understand the role of British Jews and put them on the map."

He was helped by the gradual transformation of much of England into a multicultural society and a growing pride in being Jewish. But in comparison to the vocal self-assertiveness of the American Jewish community, "We are not quite there yet," said Morrison, "We are still somewhat ambivalent about our Jewishness."

"Wondrous Oblivion" opens Nov. 24 at three Laemmle theaters, Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, Town Center 5 in Encino and One Colorado in Pasadena.


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