Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).

Sunset Song (2015)

This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.

Sunset Song film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 50: E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983)

My sense of late Fellini is that his filmmaking moved into a more determinedly nostalgic register — it’s certainly the feeling I got from 1973’s Amarcord — but if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of interest, much of it rather idiosyncratic. With And the Ship Sails On what we have is a story about the journey of a cruise liner in 1914, around the outbreak of World War I and the delineation of some of the class antagonisms onboard. Obviously, there are shades of another famous (real-life) story here, and some of the same terrain is covered: we have the plutocrats in their opulent dining rooms and cabins while beneath decks are men heaving coal into the boiler’s fires, and a boatload of Serbian refugees from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Fellini’s style, though, is more playful, and the audience’s entry point is a journalist, Orlando, played with admirable campness by Freddie Jones — indeed, much of the core cast appear to be English actors, albeit dubbed into Italian. Orlando shares his commentary directly to the camera, but all the actors are aware of it and frequently break the fourth wall with nervous glances, as if they are being unwillingly shadowed by a film crew. There’s also a very obvious non-naturalism to the sets and the sea-bound effects, particularly in a sequence near the end, in which the waves are evidently tarpaulins, and a battleship’s smoke is drawn on. It all contributes to a precarious sense of a stratified society teetering on the brink of collapse, something perhaps summed up best by the opera-singing haute bourgeoise characters memorably showing off against one another in heated competition in the ship’s boiler room, egged on by the sweaty men below.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Freddie Jones; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

Testament of Youth (2014)

Every film production is a labour of love for those who work on it, and this looks to have been a fairly big, sumptuously mounted one. I have no doubt, too, that Vera Brittain’s memoirs make for powerful pacifist literature. It’s just that in translating her words to the big screen, I can’t help but feel some of that power has been lost. I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, about a film I didn’t really like, much though there was a lot to like about it and which others will no doubt embrace more than I. The director is fond of unmoored handheld camera shots framing wispy faces against nature in a sort of impressionistic way, which is of a piece with the nostalgic feeling to it, complemented nicely by the very fetching costume design. Alicia Vikander, an excellent actor who’s been getting a lot of good roles right now (she has three films out), was wonderful as the English-born monarch in En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair) a few years ago, and here extends her range of English heroines with the central role, putting a lot of growly feistiness into it, despite her slightness of frame. Kit Harington as her love interest Roland is suitably dashing. However, it doesn’t always feel as though the scenes of war are sufficiently nasty — though suitably grimy, the men themselves come across rather with a sort of romanticised vacancy — to set up the boldly pacifist turn her thinking takes towards the end. In short, a nice film and a fairly unobjectionable one, but maybe that’s my problem with it.

Testament of Youth film posterCREDITS
Director James Kent; Writer Juliette Towhidi (based on the memoir by Vera Brittain); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 21 January 2015.

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
  • There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
  • An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
  • A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
  • Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Charles Spaak; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014.

Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999)

I recently spent over a year reading Marcel Proust’s sweeping novel (so long mainly because I was doing it in the 10-15 minutes I had on a tube train every morning and occasionally on the way home, but also because it is a novel of fantastically dense and complex sentences which resist easy consumption). It may have taken me some time to read, but it certainly has a cumulative emotional effect as we are introduced at length to an array of society characters who flit in and out of the author’s life over the course of the novel’s seven volumes, but it’s an effect you can also get pretty well from this film adaptation by Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz. It takes its title from the last of the novel’s volumes though it flits around to take in scenes from elsewhere: Ruiz’s method in his films has always felt a bit magpie-like and it’s a method well-suited to Proust’s dense and allusive text. Many people may be familiar with Proust’s famous image of the madeleine dipped in tea provoking in the grown man a rush of childhood memories (probably because it occurs only a few pages into the novel), but it’s one of the major themes of his work, and an idea to which he returns in many forms (like the little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, for example). Ruiz repeatedly invokes that sense of nostalgia with numerous flashbacks prompted by the author’s experiences at dinner parties and social gatherings (he is incidentally played here by the Italian Marcello Mazzarella, cutting an appropriately bland and retiring figure, and voiced by Patrice Chéreau). This serves to illustrate well one of Proust’s central themes — of the way that our past and present selves and experiences are always in dialogue — something only further heightened by scenes where younger actors step in to scenes featuring their older, decrepit incarnations. One of the questions a potential viewer may pose is of whether it will work for those unfamiliar with Proust’s work, and I think it does (I saw it for the first time having read very little of the novel). It’s a film of carefully-tuned performances by a coterie of French acting talent (and John Malkovich) enlivened by the director’s playful style, which passes by easily despite the film’s length. For all the hubris in taking on such an adaptation, it largely works, and does so very well.

Time Regained film posterCREDITS
Director Raúl Ruiz [as “Raoul Ruiz”]; Writers Ruiz and Gilles Taurand (based on the novel À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Marcello Mazzarella, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Pérez, Catherine Deneuve; Length 162 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 18 July 2000 (and at home on DVD since, most recently in London, Wednesday 6 August 2014).