Fortune’s Wheel – Review by Emily Elphinstone
The idea of Lions living in Dublin’s Fairview may be a strange one, but Joe Lee’s documentary Fortune’s Wheel describes just that. In November 1951, one of tamer Bill Stephens’ lionesses escaped and made her way out into the middle of Fairview; attacking a petrol pump attendant and Bill himself, before it was eventually shot by the Gardai.
Described through radio reports at the time (including a brilliantly blunt interview with the young attendant who was attacked) and eye witness accounts reliving the event moment by moment, it’s easy to picture the scene as a whole. It may have occurred over 60 years ago, but those interviewed have such enthusiasm and vividness of memory, that they appear to become children again, as they were at the time.
From the specificity of this peculiar tale, we are introduced to Bill Stephens’ fascinating life as a whole. Always a fan of animals, he grew from the young man ‘with lovely hair’ who played the drums at weekly dances, to an increasingly skilled Lion Tamer; working with various circuses.
There’s no doubt that this is a fascinating story; though Ireland has had a number of renowned Circuses historically, it isn’t often that you get to hear the individual stories of those involved behind the scenes. The real strength, however, is how personal Fortune’s Wheel feels. Whether it’s Bill Stephens’ nephew, or circus matriarch Herta Fossett, each interview feels like they might be addressing the audience directly over a cup of tea.
This may be a uniquely community based film (when his exotic young wife Mai is described as being ‘from the East’, that actually means East Wall); but the story of Stephens’ life also contains much larger, more universal themes of love and frustrated ambition. They may have lived with Lions and Monkeys, but Stephen and Mai also dealt with family disapproval, frustrated ambition, and ultimately, loss. Fortune’s Wheel is not the slickest or most fast paced documentary, but it has great personality; and is well worth a watch.