The Show of Shows




The old-style circus is with us no more but this survey of images from the past brings a bygone age to life for better or worse.

This very strange documentary feature is, save for subtitles added in one very brief scene, a wordless reflection on entertainment long gone and for insiders it could be regarded as treasure trove. What I mean by ‘insiders’ are those with knowledge of circus history, the kind of audiences who will happily argue about where old images were shot and when. For the rest of us a commentary would have been helpful since, while this compilation by Icelandic filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson, known here for Of Horses and Men, drops occasional hints about what are often British locations (Billy Smart’s Circus and Bertram Mills Circus are among the names sighted), no clarification as to time, place or period is provided.


 shw of Shows


As with Asif Kapadia’s splendid Amy and Senna, what we get, albeit switching between black and white and colour images, is either entirely or mainly pre-existent pictures seen here in the old Academy ratio. By inserting film breaks, Erlingsson divides his film into distinct sequences each of which has its own focus: clowns, say, or acrobats or lions or elephants or monkeys. That involves organisation, but the film seems to side-step away to items not necessarily, or even usually, associated with circuses: thus we have outdoor aerial stunts, spectacular bike rides and sporting events and even examples of period erotica before the film leads back to jugglers, trapeze artists and walkers on wire (again sometimes out of doors as in The Walk).


All this was in a time before Health and Safety was a concern, and some of what is shown will now horrify animal lovers while a dangerous act featuring a baby is mind-blowing, as is a knife-throwing act involving children. But if at moments the film seems to be understandably critical of what it is showing us, it seems at other times to celebrate an earlier age and that, in the absence of any commentary, leaves us with a sense of confusion. However, the soundless old images have been given an adept sustaining music score and individual sequences build up admirably through the carefully judged editing: on a technical level this is a very good film.



Dir Benedikt Erlingsson, Pro Margrét Jónsdóttir, Mark Atkin, Heather Croall and Vanessa Toulmin, Ed David Alexander Corno, Music Georg Holm, Orri Páll Dýrason and others.


Sagafilm/Crossover/BBC Storyville/BBC North-Dogwoof.
76 mins. Iceland/UK/Sweden. 2015. Rel: 4 December 2015. Cert. 12A.