Monday 17 April 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm (UK 2017: Dir Tom Lee Rutter)

Here's an enigmatic treat, a half hour mix of myth and history written, edited, photographed, produced and directed by idiosyncratic film maker Tom Lee Rutter, who has an interesting CV of unusual titles, although often difficult to see.

Rutter's latest project draws on regional English history. In 1943 four young boys, poaching in the woods near the village of Hagley in the West Midlands, stumble across a skeleton stuffed into the hollow trunk of a tree. The boys initially remain silent about their discovery but when one of the four dies, irreversibly traumatised by the find, the police become involved.

The discovery is highlighted by mysterious wording which appears on the side of the nearby Wychbury Obelisk, a monument close to the site where the remains were found, which reads "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?" (apparently this wording remained for many years, as a reminder to local residents of the need to establish the truth behind the identity of 'Bella').

And it is this image which opens the film: as we view the obelisk's graffito (recreated for the film), the image masked by overlaid clouds and other shots of the surrounding countryside, a young girl narrates a poem, written by Craigus Barry, which speaks enigmatically of secrets, concluding with the words "Who am I?"

It's an incredibly impressive and strange opening to an odd but beguiling film. By his own admission Rutter's cinematic style has been heavily influenced by the occluded film making of Guy Maddin, although I was also reminded of Andrew Kotting's 2015 meditation on landscape and the poet John Clare By Our Selves. But while Maddin's work rarely strays from fiction (and often remains baffllingly opaque), Rutter never lets the visuals get in the way of the story. The combination of historical fact and the search both for the identity of the body and the reason for Bella's death, which range from the supernatural  (witchcraft) to a more prosaic but equally odd explanation of wartime spying and a Hollywood legend, keep the film strange if grounded.
Rutter's 'hauntological' approach to the work - Bella in the Wych Elm contains snippets of old music, historical artefacts, field recordings and snapshots of the West Midlands landscape - presents a film where the elements gently collide, or more precisely merge. This is a perfect backdop over which to tell the story, and the effective use of local characters for narration ('Tatty' Dave Jones's Birmingham brogue is mesmerising) work well with the rich script. Also worth mentioning is the fine soundtrack music, by the enigmatically named The Worrisome Ankletrout (the nom de plume of local musician John-Joe Murray), a gorgeous and unsettling mix of folk and arcane sounds, perfectly underscoring the story.

Rutter has made a well-researched film that is distinctly folkloric, allusive and troubling. It's also one which successfully captures a sense of English place and history which is arcane rather than nostalgic. The short length of the piece is deceptive - there's more content in Bella in the Wych Elm's 36 minutes than most feature length films I've seen this year. A triumph.

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