One of Britain's foremost documentary makers falls a little short with this disjointed study of life on the Edgware Road.
Marc Isaacs is one of the UK's most consistently interesting and inquisitive documentary filmmakers, predominantly whisking up rough-hewn social studies of life on the British margins. You get a sense of joint endeavour from watching his films, as if the audience is learning, making connections and grappling with the possibilities of 'the story' at the very same time as Issacs.
His latest film is, alas, not one of his finest. It's an exploration into the human flotsam congregated on (or at least having some kind of professional relationship with) London's Edgware Road. The Road: A Story Of Life And Death sees Issacs apportioning his time between various subjects in order to gauge the diversity of life in the area and adopt the road as a kind of microcosm for London's migrant community.
His initial plot thread comes via a young Irish teenager who's decided to pack off to the capital in search of fame and fortune. She finds employment behind the bar of a grubby locals' pub, but with the opportunity to sing folk songs to the captive, ruddy-faced clientele. This daisy-chains on to one of the pub's patrons, an ex-railway worker who, in his retirement, has turned to alcohol.
Equally vulnerable is the elderly blind women, Peggy, living alone in a large house and finding solace in the classical music that emanates from her radio. Her reminisces about her abusive late husband are the film's tragicomic highlight.
There's also a hotel worker who's fighting the UK Border Agency to try and bring his wife into the country as well as an affluent ex-air hostess who runs a youth hostel and lives in a bizarre relationship with her philandering partner. The material yielded from Isaacs' shoot is by turns affecting and amusing, though it seldom fits together as a single, cohesive film.
Isaacs' narration is occasionally a little airy-fairy, and his attempts at making profound metaphysical proclamations sometimes fall short of their intention. His line of questioning, too, is often oppressively direct and his search for emotion too ferocious. He often asks his subjects how they feel about something or someone, and this comes across as a somewhat cheap and hurried route to bathetic pay-off.
Also – and this is merely an impression from watching the film, not a direct criticism of Issacs' filmmaking integrity – the selection of fragile, susceptible subjects feels like an attempt to fit a pre-ordained thesis about the road as place where sheltered souls drift in and out of life unnoticed. There's also one particularly hard-to-watch scene where Peggy falls over while walking down the street which adds little to the film bar the suggestion that people sometimes fall over when they're down the street.
And even though the film is shot very much on the lam, it offers very few aesthetic pleasures along the way: the camera movements are harsh, the framing is rudimentary and the editing entirely functional. It's mostly sub-Parr social realism. So this is perhaps not Isaacs' finest hour, but there is enough engaging material here to make a trip to the cinema – or even down the Edgware Road – worthwhile.
Isaacs is very prolific, but the standard of his work is generally high.
A compendium of fascinating episodes which lack a convincing through-like.
Much to admire here, but not Isaacs' finest hour.