Shooting the Past (1999)

“Can a still, mute image catch that forever?”

Stephen Poliakoff’s made-for-British television film Shooting the Past focuses on the fate of a remarkable photograph collection housed in a sprawling country mansion. The 10,000,000 photographs–known as the Fallon Photograph Collection–are stored in various rooms. To the collection’s 5 caretakers–led by the elegant Marilyn Truman (Lindsay Duncan)–the care of the photographs is more than just a job–it’s a labour of love. When the film begins, the staff members of the Fallon Museum are preparing to greet the photograph collection’s new owner.

Enter brash American millionaire Christopher Cunningham (Liam Anderson) and his whiz kid assistant. Cunningham dismisses the museum staff’s attempts at a welcome, and abruptly announces that he plans to convert the museum into a business school. The photographs are to be sold, and all the museum employees will lose their jobs. The staff members profess shock and outrage, but Cunningham insists that he exchanged faxes with the museum explaining his plans.

While Margaret Truman begs to save the collection and attempts to prove its worth to Cunningham, her assistant, the peculiar, eccentric and crafty Oswald Bates (Timothy Spall) wants to fight back using guerilla tactics. And just how the drama plays out in this splendidly acted and entertaining three-hour long film will please most fans of British television.

Writer/director Poliakoff’s message–the power and the importance of the past–isn’t particularly subtle, but it is satisfying. In Shooting the Past the issue isn’t just that an irreplaceable collection is about to be thoughtlessly tossed aside, the larger issue is the new vs. the old. The fact that the destroyer of civilisation is an American, and the saviours (or caretakers in this case) are British is a bit of a cliche. But there’s more than this below the surface. The caretakers of the Fallon Collection reside in an outmoded world stuffed to the brim with an unwieldy number of photographs, and they’ll do whatever it takes to preserve the collection and keep it intact–even at the cost of promised new employment. Would Cunningham’s efficient assistant–who has his cell phone glued to his ear while he types away frantically on a laptop–exhibit such loyalty and self-sacrifice for his employer’s business school? I doubt it.

But it’s the glory of photography that holds centre stage here–the photographs that capture a priceless moment and hold keys to the secrets of the past. While the film’s ending seems a little far-fetched, it’s still solidly entertaining. If you enjoy Shooting the Past then there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy another Poliakoff made-for-television film, Almost Strangers.

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