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average rating is 3 out of 5


Joe Beck


Posted on:

Mar 31, 2024

Film Reviews
Directed by:
Claire Oakley
Written by:
Felix Levinson
Jack Hollington, Morgan Watkins, Anna Koval

The smallpox disease once caused the deaths of millions per year, sweeping across the world in the 17th and the 18th centuries, yet today it is the only human disease to have ever been eradicated. The diseases caused fever and vomiting, but was generally characterised by measles and rashes across the body, and in most cases it resulted in death. ‘James’ depicts the first steps towards the eradication of the disease, and the titular boy who was the first person to be vaccinated.


As an educational and informative film ‘James’ excels, providing a detailed narrative of the process which saw Edward Jenner perform his first vaccination, and the boy who received it. However, as a dramatic film it falters, lacking any sense of tension or indeed pacing, and instead seeming to exist purely to provide a visualisation of those aforementioned events. There’s no dramatic edge to the film, and thus it is difficult to become truly invested, particularly when we already know the outcome, and that despite his protests James will be vaccinated, and will not contract smallpox.


It is an interesting choice by both writer Felix Levinson and director Claire Oakley to frame the film not from the perspective of Edward Jenner, but from that of young James Phipps and his father. Through doing this we come to understand more the plight facing many of the poorest in England at the time Phipps was vaccinated in 1796, as poverty prevailed whilst the disease proliferated, causing deaths particularly amongst young children.


James, played by Jack Hollington, is reluctant to be injected with the vaccine, yet the poverty of his family leads to both his father, played by Morgan Watkins, and his mother, played by Anna Koval, to see it as a means of putting food on the table and finding a much needed steady source of income. He is practically forced by his father to take the vaccine, and we see the pain and fear in his father’s eyes as he is forced to put his child through what was at the time an experimental procedure which few believed could actually work. Levinson’s script excels in these moments, as it demonstrates the bitter hardships facing the Phipp’s family, and how their desperation to get out of it, or perhaps more their desperation to survive, led to the breakthrough in Jenner’s vaccination and the eradication of smallpox.


However, whilst Levinson’s script is excellent in portraying this through its subtleties, its dialogue is rather crude and altogether uninteresting, failing to add anything more, and, in some moments, even complicating the story. Furthermore, Oakley’s direction, whilst competent, fails to imbue the film with the creativity needed to elevate it beyond being categorised as purely educational, and means that the film is thoroughly lacking in drama.


Nevertheless, despite a lack of drama throughout, ‘James’ is an interesting and informative watch, which both excels and falls down on key creative decisions.

About the Film Critic
Joe Beck
Joe Beck
Short Film
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