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A small but perfect work of art
on 23 October 2010
This is a film of seemingly modest ambitions (judging from reports of the budget available) which has clearly transcended them, to become a substantial work of art of really quite surpassing quality. The film deserves to be available again in DVD format, and to be kept in print. Despite the apparent slimness of its story, it is so richly imagined and actualized that it deserves to be watched repeatedly and is therefore a film to own, not to borrow.
In a heartbreaking style, it captures the spirit of a beautiful book (J L Carr's one indisputable literary success, in my view). It delicately depicts the restoration of hope and the enduring power of art. Love, marital sterility, friendship, meanness of spirit, pain, treachery, courage, fortitude, innocence, artistic sensibility, religious and class distinction: all and more are portrayed in the course of a real but tiny drama. His painstaking and loving restoration of a long-lost religious wall painting in the depths of the northern English countryside goes in parallel with some measure of restoration of the spirit of a man who has been damaged by the Great War.
The actors achieve something remarkable, expressing depth of character and real feeling despite the accurately represented debilitating reticence of English people trying to reach out to each other. War and the lingering effects it has on people are clear themes; the contrast between the real suffering of Birkin and the self-regard and self-pity of the Rev. J. G. Keach are intensely moving, yet delicately suggested.
The photography is ravishingly gorgeous. The use of music - notably Schubert, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams - is achingly apt. Indeed, the commentary that is implicit in the choice of music adds something more to the film that was not and could not be in the novel. There is also an intense 'thingness' about this film: objects are used in the most perfect way, and acquire life and meaning. The Sarah Van Fleet Rose, the Ribson Pippin Apple - these give a sense of particularity and veracity to the story. The hints at a remote historical connection between the north of England and the Levant are also drawn out in material as well as verbal terms. The echo that Moon provides to T E Lawrence is also subtly but effectively sounded, in terms of story and characterization.
The image of the aged Birkin at the end, with his copy of Banister-Fletcher in his hand, going into the church is beautiful if painful to see. Time has passed and the woman who might have given so much happiness to him is obviously a distant memory.