It shouldn’t be as good as this. Despite all the googlies bowled at this enchanting film, it succeeds in being fascinating. You see, it’s about cricket – except it makes it beautiful, turning the sedate qualities of an innocent game (well, it was still that in the 50s, where the movie is set) into a story that grabs the attention.
Except this British period piece is far darker than a pleasant day in the park. Indeed, the nuances of character and emotion make it barely feel British at all. Morrison has lured a stunning performance from Sam Smith as 12-year old David, a fantasy-loving Jewish boy on a racist post-war South London street. Though rubbish at the sport itself, David lives in an oblivion focused around his cricket playing cards, which advise him on tactics for his imaginary cricket matches. Were he to step into the real world, he might notice the uphill struggle his German parents Ruth (Emily Woof) and Victor (Stanley Townsend) face in reconciling the need to satisfy suspicious neighbours with wishing to retain their Jewishness. This only becomes an issue to him when a family of exuberant Jamaicans move in next door and construct their own cricket net.
The alarm bells ring immediately, of course. The Jews will be all "oy ve" and the West Indians, jaunty non-complaining Uncle Toms, won’t they? Or it’ll all be too worthy for words. Except the triumph of "Wondrous Oblivion" is its desire is to cast the complexities of British race relations in a much wider context than one small story. Contrary to what must have been a strong commercial temptation to write a script dealing with one plucky boy’s rise to the first team, its message is entirely concerned with different communities’ attempts to understand each other better. For once, all sentimentality is welcome because from start to end, this tale is clever, informed and subtle.
Although there are a procession of sweet incidents, there are no easy solutions offered. The scenes where Dennis (Delroy Lindo) teaches David the nuances of cricket-playing are joyful simply via the superb script and sharp edits within a tiny physical area. Who needs CGI when you have heartstrings? Yet, nor are we protected from the undercurrent of racist suspicion and complicity. Morrison’s script doesn’t feel the need to scream to us – when we Ruth and Dennis getting evermore drunk in a dancehall, there are barely any words.
Within the context of what seems like a standard storyline, Morrison manages to question class, gender and race roles. Ruth’s development as a woman is a focus of the narrative, and is well conveyed by Woof, but equally prominent is the Jewish immigrant search for a movement up the social ladder. Having tutted at the wealthy parents dropping off their kids at David’s birthday party, the residents of his street are equally bemused by their move to leafy Hendon. Yet, this escape is tempered by the climax of a fun cricket game in the park – despite their skill at cricket, despite the presence of superstar West Indian cricketer Sir Gary Sobers, despite Victor’s embarrassing lack of skill at catching, despite David’s journey of growing-up, Dennis’ family are left behind in a far more oppressive – and wondrous – oblivion. It is to this film’s highest credit that it doesn’t shirk from engaging with such issues.