A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY (Humphrey Jennings, 1945)

A selective canvas of the homefront during World War II, A Diary for Timothy, by Humphrey Jennings, stresses the contribution made to the war effort by working-class lives (a farmer, a miner, etc.). These, as well as warriors (represented by a recovering injured fighter pilot), are declared as doing what they do for the sake of a British newborn, Timothy. It is a sentimental gesture that works both ways; for, as surely as Britain is fighting in order to give this new Tiny Tim a safer, better world, the infant is taking his first breaths in order to help ensure Britain’s future by redeeming its hard past. One of the reasons why the film is less effective than it ought to be is that each insert of—each return to—Timothy seems forced, although postmodernists can argue, I suppose, that that is the point; given the inequities of Britain’s class-delineated society, the myth of Anychild’s future has to be shoehorned into British reality, where gargantuan success in popular music offers the best hope of being knighted out of a Liverpool slum. (Timothy, we are told, is lucky not to have been born there.) To be sure, E. M. Forster’s commentary, narrated by Michael Redgrave with complete naturalness, slips in a few scattered remarks about “unfinished business,” suggesting that the war against Hitler merely postpones the sociopolitical battles to be fought and won at home; and we get the irony that a passage to Britain’s future may prove as elusive and illusionary as a passage to India. Still, Jennings’s collection of working-class lives and faces, interrupted by Myra Hess playing “German music” and John Gielgud “Alas-ing” poor Yorick, seems artificially representative of a pulled-together nation embarked on its rendezvious with destiny. The documentary faintly scratches where it ought to bleed, and from our vantage of Britain’s subsequent victory in the war the film can even seem the opposite of what it hoped to be. A Diary for Timothy may strike some as being complacent.
     The material, shot in 1943 and 1944, silently projects a grim epitaph for future Labourite PM Tony Blair: “He didn’t get the job done.”

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