Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016).

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Criterion Sunday 32: Oliver Twist (1948)

After Great Expectations of a few years earlier (reviewed last week), comes another David Lean adaptation from the works of Charles Dickens and it is far superior. Guy Green outdoes his earlier cinematographic efforts with vast inky pools of blackness from which characters emerge into a shadowy, grey lost world, immured deep in England’s memory, as orphan Oliver is born at a workhouse to a mysterious woman who dies in childbirth, and inducted into a life of poverty and hard grind. It all resolves itself neatly by the end, but it’s given vivacity by the acting, particularly Robert Newton as a frantic Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh as his moll girlfriend, and of course the young John Howard Davies as Oliver. Nowadays the film is most known for Alec Guinness’s creepy comedic turn as Fagin, though I feel Criterion’s liner notes suggesting it’s not anti-semitic because he’s never called a Jew within the film is somewhat disingenuous: it’s clearly a caricature and a fairly unflattering one at that. Still, Fagin is a fairly small element within the whole film, which remains impressive most of all for its beautifully filmed vision of a world that must have felt within reach in 1948 given the ravages of the era in which it was made.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those liner notes, there’s just a trailer and English subtitles, so this is a bare bones package.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean and Stanley Haynes (based on the novel by Charles Dickens); Cinematographer Guy Green; Starring John Howard Davies, Kay Walsh, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

Criterion Sunday 31: Great Expectations (1946)

A handsomely-mounted prestige production from a famous literary work, there’s probably nothing particularly revolutionary in David Lean’s Dickens adaptation, but it’s still a pleasant two hours’ viewing. The central role of Pip is played by John Mills, an actor already far too old to convince as a twenty-something, though he captures a certain wide-eyed naïveté. Much better is Alec Guinness as his fey living companion Herbert. Valerie Hobson rounds out the main cast as the stand-offish object of Pip’s affections, Estella, tutored by the fusty Victorian spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). There’s some good use of contrast and shadows in the black-and-white cinematography (though this was pushed further in his second Dickens film of Oliver Twist).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan (based on the novel by Charles Dickens); Cinematographer Guy Green; Starring John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 April 2015.

Criterion Sunday 22: Summertime (aka Summer Madness, 1955)

David Lean has always been an exemplar of a certain cinema-of-quality within the English-speaking firmament (big overstuffed period pieces, later taken up by Merchant & Ivory), so I didn’t expect much from this tourist’s point-of-view story of romance in Venice. It is indeed filled with picture postcard views as might befit the American tourist on holiday — albeit ones shot with an exemplary eye by cinematographer Jack Hildyard, packed with saturated colours and beautiful light — but there’s a surprising depth of pathos to the characters. Katharine Hepburn’s Ohio-born school secretary Jane, overseas for the first time, is shot through with an indefinable sadness, expressed through her buttoned-up (if nevertheless fashionable) dress sense and cheerful embrace of the pleasures of a solitary drink. Her repression is never explained precisely, but it’s suggested during her halting romance with Venice native Renato (Rossano Brazzi) that this is her first time in love. It’s a bittersweet story which doesn’t condescend to its two lead characters, though there’s plenty of caricature to be found amongst the supporting roles. Chiefly though, it’s Hepburn’s subtle performance and the Venice scenery which do much of the work here.

Criterion Extras: More than most releases, this one really is bare bones, having only a trailer on it. The focus of course is in the film transfer, which is excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers H. E. Bates and Lean (based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 February 2015.