The First Film


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

The First Film
"A clear passion project that could nonetheless do with some judicious editing to tighten its focus."

The culmination of filmmaker David Nicholas Wilkinson's 30-year journey to bring this story to the screen, The First Film investigates the claim that Louis Le Prince filmed the world's first successful moving picture (that is to say, continuous movement from a single point of view) in Leeds in 1888, only to be subsequently ignored by cinema historians. The film details not only the competitive field of early cinematic inventions but also the significance of events in Leeds in that era.

It was a city that welcomed the immigration that came to shape it, and a hive of industrial ideas - French-born Le Prince went to Leeds because of a friendship with the scion of a key industrial family, John Whitley, and subsequently married Whitley's sister. Le Prince became part of a close-knit community of inventors who exchanged ideas at the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

Copy picture

Fascinated by - and mastering - photographic techniques (ceramics onto which Le Prince superimposed photographs of Queen Victoria and William Gladstone are believed to be inside the time capsule hidden within Cleopatra's Needle in London), Le Prince was drawn into a quest to capture moving images. He created both 16-lens and one-lens camera prototypes. His scientific and industrial background meant that the understood the importance of registering patents and did so for his inventions in both the US and the UK - the creation of the nascent cinematic apparatus was a hotbed of espionage and double dealing as inventors sought to be 'first'.

This context takes on an extra layer of intrigue given Le Prince's mysterious disappearance in France in 1890. Le Prince was seen alighting the Dijon-Paris train but did not arrive at the other end and his body was never found. Although Wilkinson acknowledges that this aspect of the story tends to overshadow Le Prince's claims as an inventor, he effectively reinforces that by dedicating a considerable proportion of the film's running time to an investigation of the disappearance - was it suicide, murder, or connected to patent theft?

The film would be more streamlined (and shorter) if the focus had remained on the question of whether the fragment of film known as "Roundhay Garden Scene" was filmed in early October 1888 as Wilkinson believes. He finds strong evidence to support this belief (the death of one of the women in the film a few weeks later gives him a provable fact in terms of dates) and experts who agree that the machine in Le Prince's patent diagrams is effectively a precursor to the modern moving image camera.

But many of his diversions - interesting though they may be - dilute the power of the central narrative through supposition and conjecture, supported by a series of talking heads who appear to have been called upon because Wilkinson knows them rather than actual expert status (unless this is an aspect of Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas that has been previously overlooked).

A clear passion project that could nonetheless do with some judicious editing to tighten its focus, The First Film's strengths lie in Wilkinson's enthusiasm for detailing - and recreating - Le Prince's inventions, and its exploration of the historical and cultural context in which he lived and worked.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2015
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A filmmaker's three-deccade quest to priove that the world's film industry started in Leeds.
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Director: David Wilkinson

Writer: Irfan Shah, Irfan Shah, David Wilkinson, David Wilkinson

Starring: Sarah Lancashire, Tom Courtenay, Joe Eszterhas, Ronald Harwood, Stephane Cornicard, David Wilkinson, Tony Pierce-Roberts, Andreea Paduraru, Gavin Poolman, Bernard Atha, Mark Rance, Tony Earnshaw, Katharine Round, Adrian Wootton, Ben Eagle

Year: 2015

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: UK, US, France


EIFF 2015

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