Saturday, 5 August 2017

Cars and girls: "Williams"

What's in a name? For petrolheads, the title of the new doc Williams - like those of Senna and McLaren, its predecessors in this pack - will be immediately evocative, conjuring images of both the Formula 1 team's yellow-blue livery and its melancholy, wheelchair-bound proprietor, boy racer-turned-motoring megamind Frank Williams. Filmmaker Morgan Matthews is steering in a slightly different direction, however. From an early stage, his latest project acknowledges this is a surname Frank shares with his daughter Claire, who lets slip she's barely spoken with her dad about the accident that left him paralysed from the shoulders down, and equally a name Frank shared with his late wife Ginny, whose voice comes through loud and clear on the cassette tapes she recorded with writer Pamela Cockerill ahead of her 1991 memoir A Different Kind of Life. The soft-spoken Frank, by contrast, is drowned out by a revving engine in a prologue that establishes how the key theme of Williams isn't combustion but communication: it wants to have the kind of conversations that tend not to happen in the traditionally male refuge/preserve that is the garage.

Matthews, arriving at this blue-chip BBC Films assignment off the back of 2014's excellent X+Y and last month's remarkable Storyville film This Was My Dad, has the surest of feels for the human aspect of this story. On one side of the track, yes, there is Frank's narrative: that of the South Shields lad who tinkered his way up in what was, even back in the swinging 60s, a toff's pursuit, his trajectory described via the conjunction of expert talking heads and evocatively faded archive footage we now expect to encounter in documentaries such as these. Yet it's layered and counterpointed with Ginny's commentary, brought to further life by dramatised sequences that visualise her flowing front-parlour chats with Cockerill. Mrs. W concedes she "might have been looking for a bit of scruff" the first time she locked eyes on Frank, and that she finds racing folk "insular"; she speaks openly and frankly about her husband's indiscretions, and how she came to deal - in the wake of the (non-racing) car crash that deprived Frank of his mobility - with the fact she would never be able to sleep with her husband again. Motion and emotion, then: where Asif Kapadia had to make Amy to connect with that audience who weren't likely to show up for Senna, Matthews might just get both crowds in to see the same movie.

The tactic has other advantages. Not only does it limit the tech-talk and Top Gear-isms (young Frank's nickname among his fellow mechanics, gleaned in passing: "Wanks"), it allows Matthews to circumnavigate a subject schooled to swallow down his feelings by a sport that has forever prioritised speed over reflection. Every time Williams threatens to stall before its subject's mechanical thought processes and reflex deflections ("I'd rather not talk about that"), Matthews can cut away to the markedly more direct testimony pouring out of Ginny or the no-nonsense Claire, appointed deputy team principal in 2013. The latter has issues of her own to talk through: far less forgiving of dad's straying than her mother, she also found her unsought promotion through the F1 ranks estranged her from her brother Jonathan, who was expecting to take on the role as the family's sole male heir. If Senna was Formula 1 as Icarus myth, Williams unfolds before us as positively Shakespearian, with Frank making for an altogether poignant figure at the centre of this storm: a watery-eyed monomaniac, nowadays obliged to live vicariously through a passing parade of playboys, while overseeing what the current Constructors' Championship table would indicate is a crumbling empire. (The Williams team hasn't won a Drivers' Championship since Jacques Villeneuve, a name now nearly as dim and distant as Greg Rusedski.)

He can be funny and self-aware, never more so than when discussing the cars he's written off, but on almost every other subject, he resembles that breed of Englishman who remains as remote from his emotions as his country is from the continent. As onetime chief engineer Patrick Head puts it, "People think Frank's unusual because of the accident - but he was always like that." The miracle is that Matthews should bring us so close to him. Racing fans should emerge from these two hours satisfied: they'll learn how young Jonathan was terrified one morning by Nigel Mansell, of all people - and Matthews does a capable job of working the inter-team rivalry between Mansell and the easier-going Brazilian Nelson Piquet up into a second-row variation on Senna-Prost. (If someone turns this into a glossy dramatisation à la Rush, I insist that the intemperate Mansell be played by the actor David Haig.) Yet this director doesn't appear unduly dazzled or overwhelmed by the glamour of this sport, choosing not to linger on the Monaco sunlight glinting off the pristine chassis. Matthews' film, all the stronger for not sticking exclusively to the racing line, forsakes revs for revelations, and its candour yields a genuine champagne moment as we approach the chequered flag: the sight of a man seeing himself, at long last, through the eyes of the women who've loved him. Sometimes a film doesn't need mph to move us.

Williams opens in selected cinemas from today, and is also available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. 

No comments:

Post a Comment