Ewan Gleadow

Movie Review: Alex Wheatle

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Copyright: BBC

As Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of BBC films goes from strength to strength, we should remind ourselves at how rare an occasion this is. Nothing else has been this positively consistent in filmmaking this year, and to put out five films, let alone one, is an astronomical achievement. With such stark quality in his first three entrants to the series, the quality of that trio alone is worthy enough to warrant a viewing of Small Axe. No matter how grand or poor Alex Wheatle and Education turn out to be, we should take comfort in more than half of these features being of good quality.  

The shortest in the series so far (clocking in at just over an hour), Alex Wheatle is the true story of our eponymous writer and the prison he lands himself in during the Brixton Uprising of 1981. We’re treated to more strong direction from McQueen, whose hand behind the camera is the saving grace for a story that doesn’t quite stretch over its short running time. To craft a biopic of a varied life in barely one hour is a bold move to make, and Alex Wheatle pays off somewhat. Its brief flashbacks to a life of torment and harsh upbringing are contrast well with his current-day issues. Our time constraint isn’t entirely justified, especially when McQueen spends much of the flashbacks experimenting with slower pace, lengthy transitions from long, medium, to short-range framing.  

If we are to understand Wheatle’s struggle, then we need more than an hour to digest his childhood tragedies and his perseverance later in life. We spend most of our time in the past, focusing in on McQueen’s craft, rather than the character himself. There’s an interesting story buried in here somewhere, but it simply can’t break through. Travelling from scene to scene with little connection between them aside from a kid attempting to integrate himself into a culture outside of an orphanage, the film itself struggles to relay its messages. Strong characters were never a problem before, and it’s only here that the dialogue doesn’t feel up to the task of  

We were bound to hit a lull in quality eventually. Alex Wheatle isn’t bad, but it misses the standard of the previous three in the series thus far. Still a likeable piece, we shouldn’t expect anything less than quality from McQueen’s craft, it just doesn’t feel as strong or prevalent as the other entries into the series. From the contrite narrative structure to the less-than-stellar writing, Alex Wheatle struggles to find its way through a story with such importance and interest to it.