Director – Ian Puleston-Davies – 2022 – UK – Cert. 15 – 97m
Two traumatised siblings reconnect as adults years after a childhood coach crash coming back from a Liverpudlian orphanage trip to a T.Rex gig in the 1970s – out in UK cinemas on Friday, September 15th
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
Picture black. A radio DJ dedication to Bob and Sally. T.Rex’s Calling All Destroyers blasts out on the soundtrack against a sudden image of a coach travelling through the English countryside. On board: excited orphanage kids with the trip organiser Simon (Louis Emerick) plus their local vicar (Andrew Lancel) and his daughter Penny (Eden Beach). Sadie (Amelia Rose Smith) nuts Tommo (Alfie Donnahey) for, as she swearily and excitedly explains to Penny, picking on her older brother Jimmy (Isaac Lancel-Watkinson). There is blood. To the consternation of Simon, who isn’t going to let the incident get in the way of the day’s enjoyment. “You’ll thank me in later years,” he says. “You’ll be able to say, I was there.”
After the gig, Simon has fixed up a trip backstage for the kids to meet founding T.Rex member Marc Bolan, getting them past other fans waiting outside for a glimpse of their hero. Backstage, Sadie is besotted by a a row of the singer’s heavily decorated shoes on a shelf, nabbing a pair while the other kids are away in the pop star’s dressing room. The return trip proves eventful too, with Tommo and mates bullying Jimmy into lighting a match at the back of the coach, causing the adults to panic and the coach to crash. There are fatalities.
Years later, on the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales, the adult Penny (Leanne Best) is running a cake shop. She, her friend Steffan (Dyfan Dwyfor) and others release doves at the coast in honour of Marc Bolan. She is now married to a kind and understanding Anglican vicar, Geraint (Mark Lewis Jones), and with his blessing she and Steffan head down to the Marc Bolan Rock Shrine in Barnes, South West London, situated at the spot where the singer was tragically killed in a car crash. A small gathering is entertained by the top-hatted, bearded Mr. Bubbles; Penny comes to his aid when he has an epileptic fit and collapses.
Back in Anglesey, at a do for clergy wives she feels like a fish out of water, a former working class, Liverpudlian kid in a middle-class world where her kind are regarded as thieves. She escapes to the ladies room and nuts the mirror, breaking it, then slips out through the window to catch a train back down to the Bolan Shrine in Barnes.
She goes shopping, finds a hippie chick dress, gets her hair cut and changes her hair colour to dark brown. She looks like a different person, so much so that the Bubble Man, Jimmy (Timothy Spall), immediately recognises her as his sister when she turns up at his caravan near the Shrine. It turns out she’s a perpetrator of identity theft, Penny having been killed in the coach crash all those yeas ago and Sadie having assumed her identity to disappear. She will remain as Sadie for the rest of the story, which presents her with the challenge of explaining to her husband that she is, quite literally, not the woman he married.
The vulnerable Jimmy is prey to the likes of Jez (Matthew Horne), who takes delight in dropping round with friends after closing time to torment and harrass Jimmy in his caravan. When Sadie stumbles upon this, she confronts Jez and gets him to leave. Concerned for his safety, she has Jimmy return with her to her husband’s vicarage in Anglesea…
In the first instance, this is aimed at fans of the late Marc Bolan, with several T. Rex songs appearing on the soundtrack. These songs have stood the test of time well and prove a real asset. Admirers will be more than happy with that, and the reverential way in which the film treats the legendary pop star. Nothing wrong with any of that.
But the film’s greater strengths arguably lie elsewhere. It manages to tackle effectively the subject of the problems faced by people growing up an an orphanage, and the way society’s most vulnerable can all too easily slip through the cracks and get themselves into trouble.
And while it’s not especially kind to members of the Anglican church – or at least clergy wives – it’s spot on in its assertion that the Anglicans have generally fared better at attracting the middle class than the working class. It’s a compelling conceit to have an orphan clergy wife at odds with more middle-class contemporaries, with all the personal friction and stress that causes.
Lest anyone accuse the film of an anti-Christian bias, it counters these characters with the kind and generous clergyman Geraint, who seems almost unbelievably tolerant of his wife’s strange ways, and almost too good to be true. Although, as he himself points out, it comes with the territory.
Outside of the Church and its imperfect human community, other models of community are presented. Gatherings of Bolan fans on sacred occasions and in designated spaces (places of worship?) such as the Shrine could almost be an alternative religion, while if the bullying company of either the child Tommo or the adult Jez stand in for another model of community, then Heaven help us!
The tale succeeds admirably in its generous, non-caricatured portrayal of clergy and for presenting adherents of Christianity in an even-handed manner. (Having grown up the son of an Anglican clergyman, I was less then convinced by the idea of a vicar who employs a secretary to whom he dictates his sermons, but that’s a comparatively minor carp.) At the same time, it gives equal dignity to the music fans it portrays, perfectly capturing how this musician or that artist can, even long after they’ve passed, continue touch people’s lives on the deepest level.
And last, but by no means least, in the characters of Penny / Sadie and Jimmy, it gives a voice to people normally pushed to the margins, helped no end by the performances of Best, Spall and, it must be said, the kids in the film’s opening sequence who also recur in characters throughout.
The film’s greatest asset, though, is its sharp and beautifully observed screenplay by Ian Puleston-Davies, a seasoned actor who has hitherto worked mainly on the small screen and directed one or two series for that format.
A little film, perhaps, but one that thinks big, takes quite a few chances and generally pulls them off. It comes out thanks to a small, indie British distributor, so track it down fast before it vanishes from cinemas.
Bolan’s Shoes is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 15th.