Gus Morton (Robert Duncan) has something of a dilemma: he is a seven-year-old boy, but he is somehow for reasons beyond his ken an uncle. He thinks uncles should be older gentlemen you see at family gatherings, not little boys, and it's a source of great embarrassment to him to be in this position. Not helping is that his nephew Tom (Christopher Ariss) is also seven years old and a tearaway, quite unlike the pensive and careful Gus, and can easily get him into trouble if he's not careful. How could his sister, who is much older than he is, have had a baby just when he was being born himself? And how could his parents have been so thoughtless as to wait till they were older until they had their second child?
The Uncle was one of a streak of cult movies made in the nineteen-sixties by director Desmond Davies, usually perceptive dramas though he also had the classic Swinging London satire Smashing Time to his name; nowadays he'd be best known for helming Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans thanks to its regular appearances on television, though it by no means accurately represented his strengths as seen in that burst of creativity over a decade before. Those were best seen often in this, where he managed to coax a clutch of natural performances out of a young cast that belied the deeper concerns the script was bringing out in the story, big ideas like life, death and budgies.
Davis took a novel by Margaret Abrams and invited her to write the screenplay with him, the results being one of a small number of films about children that were not necessarily for that age group, works like Robert Bresson's Mouchette or Bryan Forbes' Whistle Down the Wind, a subject which the sixties began to look at with interest. This was one of the most straightforward of the lot, relaying the thoughts and emotions of young Gus as he struggles to define himself when his uncle status knocks him off is perch: he's a small child, so why should he have this adult burden on his shoulders? Of course, it's no burden at all, he doesn't have to act as an adult, yet this is the trigger for those worries of the wider world to enter into his life.
For a start, he finds himself the victim of taunts from the other children during the school holidays when his sister comes to stay and brings Tom with her. Keen to discern an aspect of someone that marks them out as somehow different from them, and therefore easy pickings for bullying, Gus as an uncle is all the excuse they need to chant the fact right back at him as if it's to be ashamed of, and so ashamed he is, taking to spending more time alone. When Tom beats him up after an argument playing cowboys and Indians, it's all the humiliation he can take, and seeks company elsewhere, rather pathetically with the shopkeeper (Maurice Denham) who sells him sweets and toys, and a budgie, which he gets at a discount from the gruff retailer in a rare act of kindness.
Gus keeps the budgie in an abandoned house near his own, trying to get it to speak - "Bloody damn!" is his preferred phrase, though the bird is reluctant to say anything. The observation of a child's day to day existence, what seems important versus what really is important, was compassionately conveyed, though never sentimental: when the hardier Tom takes his uncle to see calves neutered it traumatises him and sets him off wondering with a mixture of fascination and fear where babies come from. Filmed in Plymouth, Davis took what Steven Spielberg would adopt for E.T. The Extraterrestrial as a technique, mostly capturing his imagery at the child's eye level (aside from the occasional shot emphasising how small Gus is compared with the grown-ups), and the manner in which the adults are a reliable yet oddly distant presence illustrated how their reassurance could only get Gus so far before he had to stand on his own two feet psychologically. Gentle but clear-eyed, The Uncle was a little gem deserving of a wider audience. Music by John Addison.
[Network's DVD has a pristine print and a gallery as an extra.]