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5.0 out of 5 stars THE BEST OF BRITISH FILM-MAKING, 16 Mar 2007
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This review is from: The Powell and Pressburger Collection [DVD] (DVD)
As fine a collection of British movies as you'll find, here are all the great classics from the Archers - no, not the Ambridge mob but the matchless directing/writing team of Powell and Pressburger. A round dozen films, each of them a gem of the skill and craft of film-making, each of them distinctive and exceptional in its look, its content and its style.

What was it that made Powell and Pressburger so special? It would be easy to dismiss films like A Canterbury Tale or I Know Where I'm Going as dated sentimental tosh. Yet they are both anything but - moving, involving, strong on characterisation, visually stunning and evoking an intense sense of place (Rural Kent in the former, the Western Isles in the latter). 49th Parallel? Just blatant propaganda! But then there are those stunning Canadian landscapes, the moving characterisations superbly acted by Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard and, at the other extreme, Eric Portman. Are Ill Met by Moonlight and Battle of the River Plate just a couple more British War Movies, typical of their period? No, both take a different slant on their reality-based material. In Plate, for example, the big battle scene is over before 2/3 of the film is done and yet the potentially anticlimactic scenes in Montevideo harbour and the final scuttling of the pocket battleship are just as exciting, just as fulfilling an ending as any shoot-`em-up finale. What's Black Narcissus but a high-camp melodrama about nuns going potty with sexual frustration in the Himalayas? No, as a study of women isolated by climate, culture and celibacy as well as topography, it's masterly. (OK, Kathleen Byron in scarlet dress, a slash of lipstick across her mouth and rolling eyes is a bit OTT - but I wouldn't swap her for the world.)

Are these, then just comfortably and quintessentially British films? The truth is that there is much that is technically groundbreaking about their work. Kubrick's famous time-travelling jumpcut from bone to spaceship in 2001 was there a quarter of a century earlier in the cut from hawk to Spitfire in A Canterbury Tale. The integration of music and dance with narrative in The Red Shoes paved the way for much of Gene Kelly's best work, not least an American in Paris. Long before the days of CGI Powell and his technical team were conjuring magic on celluloid. Think of A Matter of Life and Death with its endless stairway to heaven or the amphitheatre court which is actually the Andromeda nebula - as well as all the tricks with colour, with freeze-frames and so on. The Himalayas of Black Narcissus are a glorious tribute to the masters of glass-painting and backdrops, to the imagination of set designers, to the physical skills of cameramen working with false-perspectives where an inch or two wrong on the camera can ruin the illusion - all shot on the soundstages of Pinewood!

They also brought out the best in their actors. One of Niven's finest pieces of acting (at least before Separate Tables) in Matter of Life and Death: the endearingly human Roger Livesey in I Know Where I'm Going, Matter of Life and Death, but most of all as the wonderfully real, deep, touching Candy in Colonel Blimp. Anton Walbrook, too, touchingly proud then frail in that film as well as the strong Amish leader of 49th Parallel and the driven impresario in The Red Shoes. Eric Portman, so capable of conveying the ambiguities of Colpeper as well as the certainties of a Nazi U-boat captain. Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Deborah Kerr, Peter Finch, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey and so many others produced some of their best work under Powell's demanding direction.

No wonder the likes of Scorsese, de Palma and the rest rate Powell & Pressburger so highly and learnt so much from them. These elusive, tantalising, moving, talented men are worthy testimony to British movie-making at its best. My only gripe is that there wasn't room for The Small Back Room and especially Peeping Tom in this collection.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Dec 2011 21:43:59 GMT
Brilliant review, thank you.

Posted on 30 May 2012 01:41:05 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 May 2012 01:43:26 BDT
lexo1941 says:
I totally applaud your enthusiasm for the Archers, but this review is more than a bit incoherent. If A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going are 'anything but' 'sentimental tosh', then it can't possibly be 'easy to dismiss' them as such. If they clearly aren't sentimental tosh, then it can only be difficult to call them that. You also seem to believe that there is something 'quintessentially British' about the Archers and you don't seem to be very interested in talking about what that might be, even though P&P were markedly more interested in Englishness than in Britishness; Powell had a very sharp sense of the difference between England and Scotland, as witnessed in Edge of the World and I Know Where I'm Going, while Pressburger was, quite simply, a Hungarian; his outsider's sense of English culture is crucial to the skewed and critical if affectionate perspective of all the Archers' films. Kubrick's cut from bone to spaceship in 2001 is potentially a hark-back to the hawk-Spitfire cut in Canterbury Tale, but in the earlier film there is a direct parallel being drawn between the hawk and the Spitfire whereas Kubrick turns it into something much more threatening and subversive. Fred Astaire was making dance work beautifully on film before Powell & Pressburger had even met each other, let alone begun their collaboration. Finally, Peeping Tom doesn't belong in this collection because Pressburger had no hand in it. Masterpiece as it was, it was all Powell's work and it effectively ended his career.
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