British Films

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

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Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.

Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

The Forgotten Gem of British Film

There’s a film out there that you probably haven’t heard of, but that many critics list among their top 100, top 10, etc.  We happened to watch it because it was on the 1001 films you must watch before you die list, but otherwise, it was completely new to us.

I know Where I'm Going Film Poster

The movie is called I Know Where I’m Going, and is a lesser known film from 1945 created by the Michael Powell, whose offbeat storytelling has appeared here before, and will be appearing here again shortly, if we can get our film critic out to turn out more than a couple of posts a year (this one included).

This film tells the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a wealthy man who lives on an island in the Hebrides.  On her way there, she becomes gets stranded on a different island by bad weather… and the rest is a romp of a romantic film with music, dancing, comedy and even some action brilliantly interwoven.  A happy film created in dark times.

Had this film been made in the US, it would be a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon network TV.  But since it wasn’t, it’s reserved for the cognoscenti, for people who compile “bets movies” lists and, of course for readers of Classically Educated!

This is one of those cases where we really, really don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it’s one that people need to discover for themselves, but suffice to say that we heartily recommend a viewing of the same.

Michael Powell

So let’s talk about Powell for a bit.  He was a man who seemed to spend the entire latter part of the war and the days immediately following creating films that were not only fun but extremely intelligently put together.  It’s amazing to think that while noir was sweeping the US–a natural reflection of the cynicism of the times the world was living–Powell was creating upbeat, fun pictures that still managed not to ignore the fact that the world was at war (more about this topic when we reach our write-up of A Matter of Life and Death, but the Colonel Blimp link above also illustrates whet we’re talking about).

A man who would do that, time and again, is one of the true greats in anyone’s book, and the fact that small-minded prudes and imbeciles essentially ended his career some time later (for creating a film that is now a niche classic) is even more reprehensible.

Finally, our notable note for this flick is that it was one of the first appearances of Petulia Clark, CBE on film.  She was a young girl then, but we’re happy to see that she’s still going strong and would like to give a shout out to her if she’s reading this!