March 4, 2024

Iif you have ‘face of fungi’ biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s global bestseller Entangled Life on your bookshelf, intact and spine uncracked, this documentary might feel like an easier option. A beginner’s guide to fungi, just 40 minutes long, it’s narrated by Björk and hosted by the gently eccentric Sheldrake (imagine Timothée Chalamet playing a Cambridge academic, with a mop of uncanny curls). It’s being released in 3D on the giant screen at London’s BFI Imax – all the better to watch Steve Axford’s trippy time-lapse photography of weird, wonderful and beautiful fungi.

Like Sheldrake’s book, the film is on a mission to change the way we look at fungi – and the world. Fungi made life on earth possible, and virtually all trees – and 90% of plants – rely on fungi to survive. The extensive underground networks of fungi that provide trees with nutrients – the “wood-wide web” – are brilliantly visualized here. Fungus is also a miracle worker: it gives us life-saving medicine and decomposes organic matter. (Without fungi, forests would be tree-deep in animal carcasses.)

Mushrooms are having a moment. The film tours a lab in upstate New York that makes vegan leather from mushrooms, as well as an eco-friendly polystyrene alternative that you can put in your kitchen food waste bin. In China, researchers are working on a plastic-eating fungus that could help tackle plastic pollution. Sheldrake visits Tasmania’s ancient Tarkin forest, who walks softly through the mushrooms – but he didn’t write the script, and fans will miss his win-circle way with a metaphor and a Tom Waits quote. In fact, my only problem with the film is that it never quite lives up to the wacky supergroup pairing of Sheldrake and Björk.

That said, the script is full of cool twist-your-brain-around-them facts, making it great for nature-loving kids. This piqued enough mycological curiosity for me to reach for the unread copy of Entangled Life on the bookshelf.

Fungi: Web of Life is released at BFI Imax, London on 9 February.

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