Peter Warlock: Some Little Joy

Directed by Tony Britten (Signum Vision SIGDVD002)

25 November 2008 2 stars

MakingThis film, as stated by the director in the accompanying notes, is a fictionalised retelling of the life of the early twentieth century British composer Philip Heseltine, better known to us under his musical alias, Peter Warlock.

Heseltine's life, defined as it is for many by the hedonistic existence he led during the inter-war years, and by his early death by (apparent) suicide at the age of 36, is clearly ripe material for a film drama. As such the director Tony Britten decided to avoid the documentary form. He anchors the telling rather in a narrative where events are shifted around in time and in place (though it is asserted in the notes that they all actually occurred), with the focus being on the deterioration of Heseltine's faith in the world over the course of the nineteen-twenties and early thirties. The drive above all is to create a dramatic staging of the most salient emotional events in this talented composer's somewhat troubled and mixed up life.

The music is secondary in this telling, though it hovers around and within the narrative as an illuminating force. The performances, by the Nash Ensemble under Martyn Brabbins (mainly for the Capriol Suite), and John Mark Ainsley with Iain Burnside for the songs, are refined, expressive, and full of character. The music on the soundtrack is interwoven with the action as a framing device for the inner life of the lone protagonist, or as an elision between scenes (mainly the Capriol Suite). The songs mainly appear diagetically, mimed by the actors in various bar scenes or in more intimate settings with Heseltine himself at the piano.

The fundamentals of this production, as given above, thus appear sound and full of potential for dramatic success. But the end result falls short in almost every filmic sense. The establishment of character, in the first instance, is basic and quite shallow. Heseltine is seen in an early sequence revelling in an outdoor group performance of one of his cricket drinking songs with a small brass band, then a few minutes later reacting intensely to the primal force of the haka performed by his friend Colley. The dichotomy of his personality- brawler and enigma in one- doesn't convince as a felt complexity. The dialogue in these early stages seems unnatural, and is full of the kind of awkward exposition a more skilled dramatist would have woven into the fabric of the film.

The other characters are very thinly sketched indeed. Delius, present in a couple of unconvincing scenes where he receives a letter from the protagonist, and then meets with him, is a caricature of the grand old composer with little time for the world. The three women in Heseltine's life are cardboard cut outs. Though the three actors (Lucy Brown as Barbara Peache, Maimie McCoy as Puma, Georgina Rich as Winifred Baker) do their best within the narrow confines of their roles, they are there as looking glasses for the marauding male at the centre. The film is of course about the composer, and indeed about his questionable, instrumental attitude to the women in his life, so perhaps the depiction is a clever conceit of the directorís. It would have been better for the film though, in my opinion, if more subjective life had attempted to be generated for these three decisive characters. Moreover the pop psychology centred on Heseltine's father (absent) and mother (domineering) is absolutely tiresome.

Perhaps the most crucial downfall of the film is that it explores so little about the music. It is a construction explicitly about the composer's life, but central to that life was the music, and its nature, yet the only words we get on the subject are a couple of descriptive adjectives from a publisher and from van Dieren, the composer Heseltine bravely championed. There is a scene where an Irish folk singer performs a drinking song in front of the composer, who is seen later performing with a crowd of people his own bawdy piece that is in the same form (solo-chorus-solo-chorus etc) as the earlier song. But as for the actual internal details, for the individual poetry of the composer's songs and suites, these are left inviolate within the performances themselves. This, again, might be admissible in a greater, more evocative work, but as things stand you're left with a strange feeling of superficiality here. The director, unforgivably, makes an awkward equation between specific incidents in the composerís life, and his compositions, so that the audience is expected to believe the music can be explained by these events. The scene where Heseltine is shown looking at a picture of a fox in a pub, remembering one or two earlier scenes from his turbulent life, and then penning his glorious song The Fox, is a hopelessly literal take on the creative process.

Of course such a venture as this one, with limited means and necessary economy in execution, should not be held up to too bright a light. And it can't be said to be without some positive aspects. Mark Dexter as Heseltine is strong, and even charismatic, and he manages to convey to the audience something fundamental about Heseltine's uneasy character. The music too, as I have said, is lovingly and expertly performed. It is just that as a work of dramatic fiction, as a film, this piece is generally unsatisfactory, and inelegant.

By Stephen Graham