Such is the quality of PJ Harvey's masterpiece of war and national identity I had a few doubts about how a film maker might interpret the songs that make up this album - a wrong move or two could dilute the message of the songs or worse still, distract the viewer from the brilliance of the music. The challenge then for Murphy was to complement the music and not to overwhelm it whilst taking it to new and unexpected places. I believe he has achieved this brilliantly.
Potential purchasers need to know that these films are not in any way conventional music videos. We do not have extensive shots of Harvey and the band performing the songs althouh Polly Harvey does crop up throughout the films generally solo, playing autoharp or acoustic guitar in what looks like her front room. The sound recordings from these clips are played under the soundtrack but occassionaly Murphy brings the sound level up interspersing the solo acoustic recording with the album recording, often to great and spine tingling effect. But these films are not about PJ Harvey or the process of making and performing the album - they are very much a film maker's interpretation of the songs.
The bulk of the films show images captured by Murphy in his travels around England seeking to capture the essence of the album. Many of the images seem at first unrelated to the subject matter of the songs yet accompany the music perfectly. In the very first film Murphy shoots in an off-season fairground concentrating on a ride with tiny helicopters on a roundabout. Murphy seems fascinated by the way the toy rotor-blades turn slowly in the breeze and as Harvey sings "England's dancing days are done" somehow the metaphor of a closed down fair ride, well past its best and being moved by the elements rather than influencing its own environment is totally apt.
Elsewhere Murphy uses the English countryside as a stock subject often choosing shots of the same hill, tree or field in different weather conditions for variety. Many of the landscapes seem to have been filmed in Harvey's native Dorset whose rolling "white chalk hills" are incredibly photogenic in Murphy's hands. The message seems to be that we have an incredibly beautiful country in spite of all the obvious flaws and the violent and often repressive past of its people "the land is ploughed by tanks and feet, feet marching". The beauty of Murphy's photography in these rural passages is worth the purchase price of the DVD alone and somehow seems to go right to the core of what it is to be English in a way that even Harvey's lyrics don't achieve.
My favourite film in the series is that of "The Words That Maketh Murder". In a sequence halfway through the song Murphy uses footage of elderly people at a ballroom dance and, inappropriate as dancing seems for the subject matter of the song (war again!) the way in which the footage synchronises with the music making it appear that the subjects are actually dancing to the song combined with their serious expressions makes this sequence one of the most powerful on the whole DVD.
For such a serious album this could easily have proved a harrowing and disturbing watch but Murphy pitches his films in just the right place between reverence for the music and subject matter (shots of recent war victims seen through magnifying lenses in a couple of the films)and humour (Polly strumming through "The Words That Maketh Murder" on her autoharp and muttering "oh b*gger" as she hits a clanging wrong chord) making this a compelling and entertaining watch for lovers of the album. This is brilliant film making to sit alongside one of the finest albums made by a British artist. Highly recommended.