A man is given a mysterious package by a man he barely knows. The stranger asks him to watch over the box until he returns in two weeks. When the man returns inside, he can’t help but open the package to see what he has accepted, only to discover that it contains a million-dollar stamp collection.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s a documentary?
Directed by Joe Saunders, The Penny Black is a riveting documentary that begins when Will runs into his enigmatic Russian neighbor. Despite the fact that they barely know one another, Will agrees to watch over the package which contains the aforementioned stamp collection. As weeks turn into months, Will suspects that the stamps could be stolen and begins to search for the their rightful owner. However, when some of the stamps disappear, the filmmakers begin to ask if their subject is capable of committing the theft himself.
Coming at a time when true crime documentaries have never been hotter, it goes without saying that the tagline for The Penny Black should intrigue the viewer instantly. With Will’s experience, Saunders and his team have stumbled onto a true story that the very best of mystery screenwriters would hope to come up with on their own. A (potential) villain in the shadows. A haul that’s worth millions. Various suitors for the prize and, of course, a missing piece to the loot.
But most of all, there’s Will himself.
By framing the film around Will’s journey, Saunders has a hero that comes pre-loaded with shades of grey. There’s a charisma and affability to Will that makes him the perfect lead for this film. In many ways, he’s an everyman character. His innocence and desire to do the right thing makes him likeable and, frankly, he just feels like your neighbour. The position that he is put in is so bizarre the one can’t help but empathize with him. (In fact, it’s such a strange situation that it begs the viewer to ask what they would do in the same situation.)
However, at the same time, Will’s guarded nature also suggest that… maybe… he’s not as innocent as we assume. While he never gives us any specific reason not to trust him, there are times that we find ourselves asking whether he’s as honest as we want to believe. Further muddying the waters of truth also comes as Saunders also ties Will’s journey in with his relationship with his con man father. After his arrest due to forgery, Will’s father essentially disappeared from his life and their relationship disintegrated. In fact, with every mention of his father, Will visibly tenses up as they have not spoken in years. By highlighting their history, Saunders also suggests that—perhaps—the ability to deceive may be innate and looks at Will with a side glance, just in case. (Although it’s not entirely fair to Will to suggest that misleading people might be in Will’s nature due to his family history, it does create an aura of mystique around him that adds to the film.)
Of course, in addition to the mystery element, the film is also a fascinating look at what we value. As Will delves into the world of stamp collecting, we see the incredible sums that people are willing to invest simply to own a piece of sticky paper. With each tiny stamp, collector demand drives the cost up by thousands, especially the elusive Penny Black. On the surface, this passion for stamps seems almost bizarre. However, though the pieces appear insignificant, these collectors believe that their worth is incredibly high. There is a historical aspect associated with these stamps which feels part of a grander narrative and gives them more meaning. In other words, for these investors, the paper itself means less than the history that’s attached to it and they are more than happy to drop megabucks to feel as though they own a part of it.
Compelling from start to finish, The Penny Black is an absolute must-see in order to be believed. Featuring legitimate twists and turns along the way, the film is a wild ride that leaves the viewer with as many questions as it does answers, even as it draws to its own satisfying conclusion.
Oh, yeah. It’s also a documentary.
The Penny Black is available on VOD on iTunes and via their website here.