Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Return to Waterloo (1985)

Network: Channel 4, UK
Original Air Date: May 15th, 1985

Return to Waterloo
is one of those films I caught during the heyday of the Bravo channel. Believe it or not, instead of tons of reality shows and re-runs of popular American programs, Bravo aired uncut/commercial-free films from around the world. It was Bravo who exposed me to the beauty of a Merchant/Ivory Production, it was they who introduced me to the quirky world of French films as well as playing host to what would become my favorite foreign film of all time, Twist and Shout.

As a teen living in Vegas in the late 80s, I don't think I have to tell you that the city was a little short on, uh, culture. It was a town of stone-washed Guns n Roses fans, which was great - I was was all about Axl Rose - but one of the only outlets we had in our desolate little town (and yes, Las Vegas might look like a Mecca, but it was a very small place for locals), was this magnificent cable channel.

Every Saturday evening, they would show cult movies and I had the great pleasure of catching Return to Waterloo. Written and Directed by Ray Davies of the Kinks, Waterloo mixes some of the most thoughtful music of the 80s (all written by Mr. Davis) with a disturbing allegory about hidden truths and innocence lost.

The story focuses on The Traveller (Ken Colley), a man who is taking a train on his way to work. He passes people reading papers and he looks a lot like the serial rapist featured on the front page. He seems normal enough when his trip begins, but as things progress and some of the passengers come in and out of his life, we start to learn that The Traveller may in fact be the rapist everyone is looking for. And his deep secrets may also be the reason his daughter ran away and is now missing.


Told mostly through music, the lyrics that accompany the film are straightforward, simple and profound. One of my favorite scenes features the song Missing Persons and some of the lyrics are:

Now I'm sitting at home, staring at the wall.
Waiting for the missing person to call.
Waiting for the message I'm dreading to hear.
Waiting to confirm my darkest fears.
She's a missing person, I wish I could see
All of the places she might be.
Maybe I stopped her from being free.
Maybe there was something missing in me.

Davies often takes a literal approach to the lyrics, like the ones above, but other times he gets very surreal, and to great effect. There are no answers given to the viewer but piece by piece, you get a fairly good sense of what The Traveller may have done and the repercussions he's endured.

I was really moved by this movie the first time I saw it. The music and imagery is very of its time. It's obvious that Davies had to make this movie on a limited budget (and he partially funded it himself), but like so many great, underrated films of that era (Dogs in Space for instance) Waterloo is a work of art. Not only does Davies convey a real feeling dread for The Traveller's journey, but also for the downfall of England itself.

Waterloo is also one of Tim Roth's first films and his performance is quite spirited (he even sings!). In fact, this film is flooded with interesting characters portrayed by wonderful actors. There's a definite British feel to Waterloo, and it captures a place caught between prim patriotism and a country on the verge of a revolution. Davies adeptly portrays the exasperation of how the middle class lived out the decadent 80s.


For years this movie was impossible to locate, but it is now on DVD (along with eight Kinks music videos!) and the soundtrack is also readily available. You can even rent it through Netflix. You got no excuses, so get on it, K?

Ray Davies has a cameo and sort of bookends the movie. Here is a clever promo video showing what his character was doing while the Traveller was on the train:

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