The First Film (PG) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. David Wilkinson, UK/France/US, 2015, 110 mins

Cast:  David Wilkinson (narrator), contributors include Sir Tom Courtenay, Joe Eszterhas, Ronald Harwood, Adrian Wootton, Tony Pierce-Roberts

In the late 1880s the movie industry was born and the race was on in Europe and America to be the first to produce a movie camera and the world’s first film.  When David Wilkinson was a schoolboy in his native Leeds, he was told that this honour belonged to one Louis LePrince, a French inventor, who had married a Leeds girl, Lizzie, and was living and working in that city.

When David grew up and became part of the film industry as an actor, producer and distributor however, he discovered that outside of Yorkshire none of his colleagues in the business had ever heard of LePrince. They all believed the received wisdom that the fathers of film were American Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers in Paris. Determined to give LePrince and Leeds the place in history they deserved, Wilkinson set off on the long road to prove his case.

The resulting documentary is an interesting and lovingly researched piece of work, with contributions from film historians in the UK and America, fellow Yorkshireman Tom Courtenay, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and many others.

The main piece of evidence for LePrince’s claim to fame is a fragment of film of four people in a Leeds garden. Wilkinson makes the case that this was shot before Edison and the others made theirs, making it the world’s first film.  In 1890 LePrince had arranged to go to New York to demonstrate his invention.  Before setting sail though he arranged to visit his brother in Dijon to deal with some family business. He then boarded the train from Dijon toParis and was never seen again. No body was ever found, as a result his family was unable to pursue his claim that he invented a camera that recorded the very first moving image and LePrince pretty much disappeared from the official history of film – until now.

The meat of the story is Wilkinson’s meticulously gathered evidence to demonstrate that film was born in Leeds – beautifully shot incidentally by his chief cinematographer on this project Don McVey and his team.   He makes a strong case, though it does at times get bogged down with technical detail, which could be somewhat baffling to the layperson, about such matters as the cameras LePrince invented.

The real human drama however is the mystery of LePrince’s disappearance.   Was he murdered by one of his rivals, did he commit suicide and why was no body ever found? At such a historical distance, the film is unable to draw a firm conclusion.

It would be interesting if a fiction writer were now to get on the case with a theory about that disappearance, much as Kathleen Tynan did with her screenplay for the 1979 film about the unexplained disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926.

Review by Carol Allen

[SRA value=”3.5″ type=”YN”]