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FILM REVIEW: Morris: A Life with Bells On

28th March 2011

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Mockumentary maestros like Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean have taken aim at 70s glam rock (This is Spinal Tap), dog shows (Best in Show) and country music (A Mighty Wind) over the years. It’s from this spoof tradition that quirky British film, Morris: A Life with Bells On emerges, giving a parodic hug to that very English of pastimes, Morris dancing.

It charts the rise, fall and rise again of expert Morris dancer, Derecq Twist, whose handkerchief-waving and stick banging with a champion Morris group in Dorset is being documented by a film crew. He is training to perform the prestigious ‘Three Pole Hammer Damzen’, a dangerous, three and a half hour endurance test akin to Blades of Glory’s ‘Iron Lotus’ – but perhaps without such a threat of decapitation.

But Derecq is part of a New Wave in Morris, introducing modern influences to the art. This ruffles the feathers of the Morris dancing establishment, particularly Quentin Neely (a delectably sinister Derek Jacobi), the head of the Morris Circle, a watchdog institution that controls an SS-style Morris squadron clad in foreboding black (yet retaining the bells), to regulate the dancing community.

And what a community they are. Sporting names such as Lydiard Spurling, Boothby Pagnell and Muff Barcock, they sound like titles even Tolkien would have rejected. Yet, they’re a loveably idiotic bunch, summed up by their training mantra, ‘The Three Ps’: “Passion. Practice and Desire to be the best.” But for a mockumentary to succeed, its characters must provide pathos as well as buffoonery. For the most part, succeed it does.

There are hearty laughs aplenty, not least of which come from French jester Dominique Pinon (known for his collaborations with extrovert director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) whose back-story detailing how he was indoctrinated into a life of Morris – involving being shipwrecked on the Dorset coast, rescued by an Inn keeper and marrying her in the process – is brilliantly bonkers. He also demonstrates, to hilarious effect, folk dancing’s performance-enhancing drug; cider.

The film deflates slightly (as did Armando Ianucci’s equally subversive and quick-witted, In The Loop) when the action moves to America. Jacobi ‘excommunicates’ Derecq’s Morris group for their modern methods and, in an unprecedented dramatic twist, his best friend dies of an aneurism, prompting Derecq to hang up his bells and embark on a normal life. However, the documentary filmmaker breaks the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking and intervenes, sending Derecq on a soul-searching adventure to the States to recapture his passion for dancing with an overly-camp Californian Morris troupe.

There’s plenty to dance about here though. The gags come thick and fast and the film provides an, albeit almost completely fictional, insight into an English pre-occupation many have heard of, but that few are able to comprehend. Well, go and watch Morris: A Life with Bells On. It’s the funniest folk dance mockumentary you’ll see for a while.

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