Directed by Marc Isaacs Second Run (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD)
A British documentary maestro who's been building a remarkable body of humanist work since 2001, Marc Isaacs remains largely unknown outside the U.K. except to those devoted enough to import the handful of home video releases of his work. Second Run has been banging the drum for his output on DVD with a worthy batch of double or triple features consisting of Life / Travelers / Calais: The Last Border, All White in Barking / Men of the City, and Someday My Prince Will Come / Philip and His Seven Wives, plus the standalone The Road - A Story of Life and Death. However, they've really outdone themselves by consolidating everything into a 2018 two-disc Blu-ray set that also adds quite a bit more, serving as a substantial upgrade all around and providing the best overview yet to a filmmaker well worth discovering.
Difficult to describe but delightful and oddly disquieting to watch, Isaacs' debut film Lift (2001, 24m35s) kicks off disc one as the filmmaker situates himself inside the lift (that's elevator to us Yanks) of a high-rise apartment building and captures the spontaneous, wildly contrasting reactions of its occupants as they grow more accustomed to his presence. Travellers (2002, 47m46s) shifts the conceit to train travel as passengers before and during their trips are profiled in both mundane and remarkable moments of their lives, bookeneded with one in particular whose journey takes the viewer (and Isaacs) in a very positive direction. Things get much more disturbing with Calais: The Last Border (2003, 58m53s), a glimpse of the downsliding area where the English have a "gateway to Europe or a place to buy cheap alcohol" and the migrants encounter "the final barrier in the desperate search for a new life in England." Needless to say, it plays very differently now in the age of Brexit as Isaacs contrasts frivolous bargain booze seekers with desperate immigrants looking for a better life. Also more potent than ever is All White in Barking (2008, 72m26s), a profile of the titular town where some of the country's highest immigration levels are challenging local customs, attitudes, livelihoods, and day-to-day patterns -- though not in ways you might expect. The final scene is a bitter little slice of racism that still packs an understated punch, too. Finally Men of the City (2009, 58m14s) works on the biggest canvas of the set with a dive into the charges wrought in London by the financial meltdown, with various people around the economic epicenter opening up about their views of having their entire day and way of life driven by money. The fact that Isaacs happened to be profiling these people just as the crisis hit gives the film an extra potent kick as he casts his next to include some unexpected choices of interview subjects.
Also included on the first disc is a selection of four short films. The Old Man and His Bed (2011, 7m16s) is a harrowing portrait of a bedridden man on a daily oxygen supply reflecting on his state of being, while Touched by Murder (2016, 16m25s) examines the reactions of a group of canal residents after a woman's body is discovered nearby in a suitcase. When Night Falls (2016, 18m36s) charts the lives of four long-distance truck drivers whose existence is a balance of freedom and isolation. Outsiders (2014, 18m3s) is more or less a companion piece to Barking as it primarily takes place from the inside of a burger food truck with customers casually sharing their opinions about immigration and the rapidly changing ethnic climate of England. Bonus features on the first disc include an archival interview with Isaacs (18m35s) at the start of his career including an in-depth discussion of how Lift came about and he began to discover the process of shaping a narrative in his films. BBC Storyville series editor Nick Fraser also appears for an interview (15m5s) honing in on the genesis and production of the Barking and film, which played against many of the simplistic portrayals of the media at the time, and the uncanny timing of Men of the City.
On to disc two, Someday My Prince Will Come (2005, 48m18s) charts many months in the lives of two young potty-mouthed cousins in Siddick, romance seeker Laura Anne and Steven, with everything from school performances to bonfires contrasting with gorgeous nature shots and quiet meditative moments. A brief coda (1m45s) catches up with Laura Anne eleven years later on a sad but hopeful note. Coincidentally made the same year Big Love launched on HBO, Philip and His Seven Wives(2006, 69m27s) offers a snapshot of a country rabbi and horse farmer who follows what he regards as an Old Testament covenant to take seven wives; significantly, it tries to explore why and how the women agreed to partake in this arrangement while dealing with day-to-day realities of land upkeep and their local shops. Psychologically it's fascinating stuff including recurring themes like abusive backgrounds, religious obligations, and perceived persecution. The quiet but compelling Outside the Court (2011, 58m45s) is compiled from months of interviews conducted outside London's Highbury Magistrates Court with everyone from an habitual thief to anxious relatives to drug addicts caught at pivotal moments in their passage through the legal system. It's also quite beautiful as the time passes before your eyes from spring to snowy winter. An Irish production made for BBC's Storyville, The Road - A Story of Life and Death (2013, 75m12s) begins with an Irish girl named Keelta making her way to London to become a bar singer and blossoms into a snapshot of the lives and struggles of people along the A5, the much-traveled passage from northwest London and far beyond that's also the oldest of the area's Roman roads. Among the personalities are a colorful retired stewardess, a Buddhist monk, a Viennese escapee from Nazi persecution, and an immigrant concierge arranging the arrival of his wife.
Segregated from the rest of the films is an impressionistic 2017 Out of Time installation divided into four sections -- Sisters (7m34s), Moments of Silence (9m57s), Notes on Bangladesh (3m40s), and Rainy Days (6m1s) -- while the special features options include an update on Philip and his wives eight years later (14m31s) with his 19th child on the way and some family members gone (one complete with a court battle), a general 2017 interview with Isaacs (16m9s) about his path to becoming a documentarian and his different approaches to different age groups and demographics, and a second interview with Isaacs (17m45s) focused entirely on The Road.
As you might expect for a series of documentaries produced over nearly two decades on a variety of formats, image quality ranges wildly here with the earliest shorts shot on SD video obviously looking the most modest. The more recent ones shift to HD video or even partial film and look quite good, though again you can see the limitations of the source material at times with some occasional shimmering in tight patterns. The original broadcast frame rate of 25fps has been maintained as well, so make sure your player is compatible. The LPCM English audio for each film sounds good given the fairly undemanding nature of the 2.0 stereo productions. The set also comes with a substantial 80-page book, 80-page book, The Human Element - from Lift to The Road, which includes new retrospective essays on the films by Isaacs along with additional written pieces by editor David Charap, composer Michel Duvoisin, producer Rachel Wexler, and film writers Graeme Hobbs, Nick Bradshaw, Noel Megahy and Laura Rascaroli.