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Wonderwall
cast: Jack MacGowran, Jane Birkin, Iain Quarrier, Irene Handl, and Richard Wattis

director: Joe Massot

76 minutes (15) 1968 widescreen ratio 16:9
Prism Leisure DVD Region 2 retail
[released 13 June]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Patrick Hudson
This little known piece of fascinating 1960s' kitsch features a fine soundtrack by George Harrison, and a remarkable glimpse at psychedelic filmmaking at its most indulgent. The story concerns a lonely scientist, Professor Oscar Collins, played by Irish stage actor Jack McGowran, who discovers a hole in the wall that looks through to the neighbouring flat, occupied, in a happy coincidence, by a lovely model, Penny Lane, played by Jane Birkin. He quickly becomes obsessed by her glamorous life, and dreams of sweeping her off her feet and carrying her away from her sleazy boyfriend.

It sounds a bit creepy, but this isn't the sleazy sort of voyeurism, it's the naïve longing of an innocent worshipping an unknowing beauty from afar... nah, I'm not buying it, either. By any standards the story is very iffy. Although made in the heyday of women's lib, the plot wouldn't be out of place on Benny Hill, and owes more to The Seven Year Itch than to The Female Eunuch. However, the professor's yearnings are portrayed as chaste rather than sordid, and in the symbolic vernacular of the times sexual longing was often representative of a greater spiritual need. This type of mid-life crisis comedy was quite popular in the 1960s. The professor is very similar to characters played by Peter Sellers in; for example, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and There's A Girl In My Soup, and despite a fine performance from the McGowran I couldn't quite shake the feeling that the role had been intended for Sellers.

Don't watch this one for the plot or the politics, then, but revel in the swinging 1960s' style that oozes from every frame. The professor's flat is decorated with large pre-Raphaelite murals illustrating scenes from Arthurian legend, and decorated with quotations from Tennyson and Christina Rosetti. Penny's is an amazing psychedelic dream pad with brilliant colours and stained glass windows. There are plenty of fashion shoots, too, with some marvellously outlandish 1960s' clobber, and let's not forget the lime green car with matching interior. Good use is also made of the location for Oscar's lab - a waterworks somewhere (Kew?) - particularly in a dream sequence where Oscar uses the pumping equipment in a symbolic duel with his lab assistant (Richard Wattis).

George Harrison's soundtrack is superb, and mixes rock with raga and more experimental noise elements to underline the action. The notes on the DVD say that Harrison worked carefully to tie the music to the rhythm of the film, and the results are well worth it. There is little dialogue and so the music has to carry the film, which it does to great effect. The soundtrack includes performances from Eric Clapton, Ringo Star and Peter Tork (of The Monkees), and the sections of Indian music were recorded in Bombay while the Fab Four enjoyed the hospitality of the Maharishi, so fans of 1960s' music may also wish to seek this one out.

With sex and rock 'n' roll covered, you won't be surprised to hear that Wonderwall plays with the other great 1960s' shibboleth, drugs. There's a party scene where various fashionable bright young things puff half-heartedly at rough looking joints, the boyfriend sports a particularly manky looking bong, and extras dance stiffly with glazed 'man, I'm out of it' smiles. In a dream sequence, the boyfriend leaps out at the professor in a Superman suit where the big red S is augmented with the addition of an L before and a D afterwards. The visuals are very clearly cued to a psychedelically enhanced audience, particularly the throbbing, abstract shots down the microscope and the layering of shots in the peeping scenes. In fact, the professor's whole experience comes across a bit like a long acid trip, starting with initial unease and then moving through mania and hallucinations to a peak experience, and finally returning to normal. What was he up to in that lab anyway?

McGowran does well with the physical comedy of Oscar's role, although the characterisation is necessarily thin. Birkin is one of those actors one either loves or loathes - I'm in the former camp, and so Penny's thin character was more than compensated for by plenty of posing in funky 1960s' gear. The boy, played by Iain Quarrier is suitably vacuous, and looked good. Irene Handl and Richard Wattis provide solid support, although they are clearly paying the rent rather than tribute to the actorly muses.

Wonderwall is not a great movie, and elements of the plot creak with ideas that were antiquated even by the standards of the time. However, it does not outstay its welcome and the fabulous music and set design more than make up for its failings in other areas. This film has remained obscure since the 1960s, and this belated release might see it gain some notoriety as a time capsule. The striking visuals and excellent score make this well worth a look if you are interested in the swinging London scene or 1960s' psychedelic rock culture.
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