The First Film, film review: The mysterious disappearance of inventor Louis Le Prince

(PG) David Wilkinson, 110 mins
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The Independent Culture

David Wilkinson's impressive and intriguing documentary tells the story of early film pioneer Louis Le Prince, a figure eclipsed in cinema history by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers but ripe for rediscovery. Le Prince was French but married into a Yorkshire industrial family in the 1860s. In 1888, using a one-lens camera he had patented, he made in Leeds what may well have been "the world's first successful moving pictures".

Prince's story is fascinating, and the bizarre circumstances of his disappearance add to the mystery around him. In 1890, he boarded a Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again. There are many theories as to what happened. Did Edison have him killed? Were the Lumières involved? Whatever the case, his name faded.

The First Film works both as a detective story and as an account of a brilliant inventor who had an aesthetic side that many of his rivals lacked. Wilkinson tells us that he has worked on his documentary for 30 years, and "for seven years in earnest". At times, he can be chauvinistic in his attempts to claim the birth of cinema for Yorkshire. His resentment of London-based newspapers and film companies who dismissed his project is self-evident.

With all its talking heads (from Tom Courtenay to Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas), the doc isn't especially cinematic but you can't help but admire the dogged passion with which Wilkinson has pursued his subject. As Eszterhas tells him, the story would make a very good fictional thriller, too.

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