Someday My Prince Will Come/Philip and His Seven Wives: Two Films by Marc Isaacs
This welcome Second Run DVD release comprises two early films from the excellent British documentary filmmaker Marc Isaacs entitled Someday My Prince Will Come (2005) and Philip and His Seven Wives (2006). On first inspection, they could be considered strange bedfellows with very little shared between each film other than a somewhat vague notion of love and relationships.
Someday My Prince Will Come is a beautiful, (bitter)sweet exploration of the tentative steps of first love for ten-year-old Laura-Anne, a girl residing in the semi-rural, semi-industrial Cumbrian backwater of Siddick. Told extensively from Laura-Anne’s point of view, the film uses a narration of rhyming couplets by our young heroine to colour in the details of her hopes and dreams for love and happiness and provide both insight and humour.
Philip and His Seven Wives is a much more divisive affair exploring a subject matter that could easily have formed the basis of a Louis Theroux documentary and, though Isaacs remains off camera throughout, he is as much a character in the film as Theroux is in his productions; offering his own thoughts and reflections in narration and interviewing his subjects far more than he did in Someday My Prince Will Come. The titular Philip is the reason for the contentious nature of the film; a former messianic rabbi, Philip claims to have received a month of visitations from God in which he was told that he was a prophet. From there, Philip left the church to embrace an Old Testament/Mr Wroe’s Virgins style life; taking seven diverse women to be his wife, all living together under one roof in Hove. It is the most unconventional of domestic set-ups, and one that is often hard for us viewers to comprehend or condone.
Despite the initially suspected differences in content and tone, when watched either side of each other, both films feel quite symbiotic. In an interview that forms part of this DVD’s special features, the filmmaker discusses the sense of claustrophobia he feels both films contain. Laura-Anne’s home of Siddick may offer a good deal of eye-catching nature, but it is essentially just two run-down streets dwarfed by the endlessly rotating wind turbines and encroached by the broiling sea of the nearby coastline. Given that it is such a small locale, it is obvious that Laura-Anne has little to choose from in terms of potential suitors, which naturally presents her quest for her first, real love with a series of ups and downs.
Philip’s milieu is more noticeably contained, with much of the action occurring in his home or – more specifically – around the kitchen table where Philip serenades his unorthodox family with the guitar, before holding a series of family meetings. It is these scenes that become some of the most uncomfortable in the film. Teeming with women (seven wives along with a matriarch figure in the shape of the latest bride’s grandmother) and the various infant children from these ‘marriages’, Philip sits at the head of the table, clutching a microphone to address them at length, citing each in turn as the reason they have yet to reach the paradise he believes God has promised him. Philip’s attitude towards his wives is not dissimilar to the attitude he has when breaking in his stable of horses. Indeed, when he remarks at one point that “If you don’t handle them right, they do get a bit wild” it could be considered ambiguous about just who he is referring to, especially when you consider that – during the course of the film – he casts three wives out of the home like the old furniture he sells in four shops across the town.
Laura-Anne, caught on the cusp of the innocence of childhood and adolescence, has such slim pickings of potential beaus at her disposal that it becomes increasingly clear she may in all likelihood have to cast her net wider. Philip has already cast his net wide to reap himself an abundance of women to gather to his cause, but he is still unable to find that degree of innocence and the purity of love that is natural to a child such as Laura-Anne. The claustrophobia Isaacs refers to is the frustrations of love that are closing in on both subjects – indeed each film could arguably be tagged with the old adage, ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’.
On the evidence of one of the most affecting character studies in Philip and his Seven Wives, it’s an adage that could easily be levelled at his sixth wife ‘Chava’, the eldest of the women. Through a series of empathetic, intimate interviews Isaacs slowly draws out the character of a woman who in all other incidences, as Philip is seen to berate, stands meekly and mildly on the periphery of the family activities. A natural wallflower and a widow from a twenty-two year unconsummated marriage; ‘Chava’ was a virgin until she met Philip, who was the rabbi who presided over her husband’s funeral. Alone with Isaacs, she reveals her fears of being returned to God like an unopened letter returned to sender, and dreams of being the central female figure in red, dancing on the beach in Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler, rather than the old maid who cowers on the sidelines, grappling with an umbrella. In one painful scene, she confides to Isaacs the secret hurt she feels at the news that Philip’s seventh (and youngest) wife Karyn, is expecting Philip’s much longed for first son. With the quiet, pained air of an all too polite Englishwoman and product of her generation, ‘Chava’ reveals that she had been foretold that it would be her who would be the first to bear Philip a son, despite being long past the natural ability to do so.
Also on the periphery of Someday My Prince Will Come is the level of poverty in the town of Siddick. Whilst there’s a degree of Loachian warmth played front and centre to the grit and passion of the young charges (you wouldn’t be at all surprised for example if one of Laura-Anne’s scruffy, salty suitors turned up with a kestrel perched on his arm a’la Kes) the significance and reality of their potential futures play out at the corners of the film; young men sit idle throughout the working day on their doorsteps with their women boasting round, pregnant bellies – another mouth to feed on low income or benefit. As Laura-Anne narrates in one of her rhyming couplets;
“In Siddick, where men used to dig for coal, now it’s just two little streets, and most men on the dole”
But there’s still a degree of optimism to Someday My Prince Will Come. After all, it’s right there in the fairytale, Disney title, – it’s not Someday Maybe My Prince Might Come, – and it’s clear Laura-Anne not only believes in her dream of love but that she’s utterly entitled to it as well. The film is rare in that it tackles the notion of children experiencing and/or wishing for love with the upmost respect and an acceptance that such burgeoning mature instincts do exist in children on the brink of their teen years. It is clear Isaacs believes Laura-Anne is entitled to just such feelings too and, whilst it’s true that her rhymes are penned by Jonathan Ruffle, a professional writer imitating and enhancing her natural voice, he ensures the film rightly and emphatically remains Laura-Anne’s story. He never once talks down to the children, forces himself into the narrative, or attempts to work the film to a different level for an older audience, he simply lets it speak for itself. This positivity, even in the face of repeated disappointment, exists perhaps because there’s simply more years ahead of Laura-Anne et al than there are behind them. In Philip and His Seven Wives that positivity just isn’t there. His unshakable beliefs are not universal; unlike Laura-Anne’s dream, Philip’s is not something an audience can easily identify with and, if anything, it’s a premise that ultimately alienates. It’s not just a difficult issue for the audience either, it lies within the wives themselves; Philip must convince and encourage them to devote their lives to him and to God, and instill in them the belief that this is the right way for them, yet it is only natural that they feel suspicious and envious of one another in a way that subtly poisons the domestic harmony. Philip, attuned to such cracks, weaknesses and frailties, seems set only for disappointment and hardship in the pursuit of his prophesised future.
The DVD extras offer an opportunity to revisit Philip some eight years after the original film for a brief catch up. In it, Isaacs finds that he’s relocated to a farmhouse in Sussex and spends half of the year in Crete. He’s now a father to a staggering eighteen children, with one more on the way, and his relationships with two of his wives (including Karyn, the youngest who gave birth to his son in the original film) are now completely over. The interview allows Philip the right to reply to Isaacs’ 2006 film and it’s surprising to see how little issue he has with the documentary. He seems blithely immune to Isaacs’ narrated concerns for the womenfolk, given that no one is around to keep Philip in check, and instead he admits to being ‘too intense’ and lacking in wisdom and understanding for his wives at that time. He claims to have overcome these weaknesses and faults in his character in the intervening years and admits that the only real problem he had with the film was the fact that Isaacs shot a scene that saw him sprawled out on the sofa because he was a little unwell, eating a cornetto whilst being waited on hand and foot by several of the wives; “it made me look dictatorial” he smiles, whilst admitting he was “playing up for the camera”. Of particular interest, however, is how little he refers to God or his vision in this reunion – but that may be down to the limited time at their disposal.
It is this short catch up, alongside an equally short interview with Marc Isaacs, that makes up the DVD’s special features. It’s a real shame that the opportunity to see what happened to Laura-Anne and the rest of the Siddick kids wasn’t taken, as I’d really like to have seen what these 19/20 years olds would now think of their junior selves. More, I just hope Laura-Anne’s dream has come true and that she has somehow broken free of the potential chokehold of Siddick.