Saturday, 27 August 2011
The Optimists of Nine Elms
In writer/director Anthony Simmons' words, Peter Sellers gives "a great gut performance" in the 1973 film The Optimists of Nine Elms as the variety performer, reduced to busking, who is befriended - and ultimately redeemed - by two children.
It's a role which fits him like a glove, and it's surprising that it's taken so long for this film to be issued on DVD (and still not in its natural homeplace of Region 2), and that it's not one of the pieces automatically cited as an example of Sellers at his best.
That could be because of the associated negative connotations of a "children's film", which it could be argued this is. It certainly has lots of music (Lionel Bart and George Martin), and it mostly favours the children's point of view; indeed, the original, rather less complex, novel is told by one of the kids. But it's to Simmons' and Sellers' credit that there is very little in the film which is sentimental (meaning unearnt emotion), so the music could be seen as a way of sugaring the pill.
The essentials of the story are that after initial resistance to the attentions of two curious children, old Sam grudgingly allows two them to help him out when busking and to look after his ailing dog, Bella; in turn he helps to encourage in them the sense of imagination and hope (hence the film's title) which their parents, beleagured by work and the demands of a new baby, have been failing to foster. The children repay the favour in the film's most touching, wordless, scene which I won't spoil by describing here, and - partly through Sam's impassioned intervention - their father is finally prompted to a realisation of his neglect.
But the main argument against this being a film aimed exclusively at children is because Sellers plays a convincingly embittered, isolated character rather than some unthreatening funny uncle: each time he suspects the children of some act of selfishness or neglect the drawbridge comes down again; each subsequent thawing appears a mini-miracle.
And there is enough information presented along the way for the adult viewer to piece together the character's life, despite the film largely being presented from the children's point of view.
In fact the only wrong note I can think of is a late night cycle ride in Hyde Park which seems to belong to a different sort of film. It could also be argued that the film's final moments, where the children seem to forget about Sam, who provided the kind of care their dad should have done, now that they have a fully functioning dad to offer piggyback rides, is also from a different, simpler sort of film, but the suggestion is that Sam, too, has been transformed changed by his association with the children so the friendship has achieved its purpose on both sides.
Known in America simply as The Optimists, hence the title of the Region 1 DVD currently available from a well known shopping website, the original title for this film was The Optimists of Nine Elms (although by the time it was made Nine Elms no longer resembled its former self enough so shooting actually took place in nearby Wandsworth).
If you have seen Simmons' Four in the Morning, the DVD of which also features his short Bow Bells, then you will not be surprised at the amount of location shooting; here, too, the city itself seems like another character - entirely appropriately, because, it's Sam who makes London south of the river - and beyond - come alive for these children. Oh, and it's also worth mentioning that the children's performances seem remarkably natural: no stage school mannerisms on show. Apparently the lead, Donna Mullaney, was simply an inquisitive girl in the street whom no budding actress could match. In short, with so many things to go wrong, this film is almost perfectly judged, avoids sentiment, and can be strongly recommended to children, adults, dogs and tourists alike. Thank you, Mr Simmons.
Below is a youtube clip from early on in the film.