Even though 1984’s Return to Waterloo is the only fiction feature that Ray Davies directed in his long career, it easily announces its auteurist bona fides. The opening sequence, detailing the dreary work commute of a melancholic man known simply as The Traveller (Kenneth Conley), effectively captures the disillusionment with domesticity in British middle-class society that Davies had satirized for years as chief songwriter and frontman for the Kinks. The Traveller is essentially the embodiment of the classic Kinks character of the uptight working man featured in many of the band’s work, most notably in their brilliant concept album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), but Davies takes the majority of the inspiration for the film from his debut solo album of the same name. He even sets Return to Waterloo’s narrative to the album’s music, incorporating very little dialogue in the process, and as such the film suggests a visual LP.
The film frames The Traveller’s commute as a critique of Britain’s varying ideologies, which are partly represented by successive generations. The aging World War II veterans are marked by systemic complacency, finding grievance with anyone who bemoans the society they helped protect; the following generation, which The Traveller belongs to, are so conditioned to believing they must sustain an ostensibly “normal” lifestyle, as in buying a house and settling down, that the monotony of their daily routines makes them appear almost catatonic; and finally there’s the young punks, rebelling against everything from domestic boredom to Thatcher’s policies.
Ray Davies seamlessly transitions to the role of director and shapes his artistry for a new format.
Davies doesn’t side with any generation in terms of whose beliefs are more rational; he sees their views as essentially transient and, in the long run, frivolous. Each generation will have their moment in the public consciousness, until the next ideological wave will sweep through to compromise the previous one. This endlessly repeating cycle of predictable generational rift cannily mirrors The Traveller’s commute day after day, with the idea of the world running on repetition being a minor theme for some works by the Kinks, but something Davies fully explores in a new medium.
Working with Roger Deakins as cinematographer, Davies conveys England as a purposely bland, gray-scale dominion filled with citizens who have no distinguishing characteristics. The setting is almost dystopian in appearance, and, appropriate for a film made in 1984, it brings to mind George Orwell’s infamous vision of the country. And in the midst of this oppressively indistinctive landscape, the appearance of people and objects, all presented in stand-out colors, comes to register as expressions of The Traveller’s desire for escape—also a running theme throughout the Kinks’s discography.
Such moments are of piece with how Davies interprets his music on a dual emotional and psychological level. That said, he does occasionally drop into the film amateurish sequences that literally act out the lyrics on screen as those lyrics are being sung. And ultimately, that’s what’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Return to Waterloo, in how Davies seamlessly transitions to the role of director and shapes his artistry for a new format. The film is a work that never comes off as an outlier in an esteemed career, but merely another piece that fits snugly into Davies’s canon.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—24.