Jan 2, 2012

An Education: A Canterbury Tale

An Education is a new series for 24FPS. Across the course of 2012 I'm going to be filling some holes in the list of accepted 'classics' that I realise I should have seen, but for one reason or another I have thus far not got around to. I'll be watching and reviewing 104 films across the course of the year (and another 52 horror films in a sister feature for www.horrormovies.ca) I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope you'll join me in what I hope is going to be something of a voyage of cinematic discovery.

If you've any thoughts on the articles, or the films I'm going to be watching (full list HERE) then please share them in the comments, via email to sam@24fps.org.uk or tweet me @24FPSUK

First up...

Dir: Michael Powell

Why is this on the syllabus?
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's films are some of the most significant in British cinema, and I've seen some (though not enough) of their later, more iconic, work, and loved it. The Red Shoes is among my favourite films of all time. I chose A Canterbury Tale because it's a slightly unexpected pick from their filmography as compared to the likes of Colonel Blimp or I Know Where I'm Going, and I'd been meaning to watch it for some time now.

What did I learn?
That I don't unconditionally love Powell and Pressburger. Now, put the torches down, stop the screams of 'burn the witch', A Canterbury Tale is a very, very good film, and I enjoyed watching it, but I really can't pretend that it had me at the same level, either of spectacle or emotion, as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. This may, admittedly, be partly my fault. One of the problems of spending 21 years watching movies on a more or less non-stop loop is that it leaves little time for reading, and I've never got around to reading any of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which screenwriter Pressburger is apparently echoing here, I imagine that if you've got a working knowledge of Chaucer the whole film will play much better, and likely feel more meaningful than it did for me.

The story here is slightly strange. Getting off the train in a village outside Canterbury, Alison, a young Land Girl, (Sheila Sim) meets two soldiers; Peter, an Englishman (Dennis Price) and Bob, an American (John Sweet, a non-professional who was a Sergeant in the US Army, and never acted in another film), as they walk to find somewhere to stay Alison is attacked by 'The Glue Man', who has been regularly pouring glue over the hair of girls who are going around with soldiers. Over the weekend the three stay in the village, and Alison decides that they should discover who the Glue Man is, before heading on to Canterbury on Monday.

The film's mystery storyline doesn't work terribly well, not that it's poorly told, but it's so lightweight (and the solution so stark staring obvious from the off), that it just isn't all that engaging, but I suspect that that's not really the point, and certainly Powell and Pressburger seem more interested in village life, the way people pull together in a time of war and the relationships between Alison, Peter, Bob, and Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who seems to be something equivalent to head of the village council. This is where the film excels, as Pressburger's script draws each of them with some depth and complexity, and makes each relationship feel a little bit different. Particularly well written and played is the relationship between Bob and Alison, who bond over lost love in one of the film's standout scenes.

All of the performances are strong. Portman's role could quite easily have invited a hammy performance, but while he's appropriately stuck up at times (one scene takes place as he's giving a lecture to the assembled soldiers on the history of the local area), he also evolves as a character, being drawn in by the three main characters after being dismissive of them to begin with. It's left up to us to decide how much of this change of attitude is a ploy. Sheila Sim makes for an appealing lead, and a surprisingly modern one for 1944, as she takes the lead in investigating the Glue Man, drawing the men in after the fact. As Peter and Bob Price and Sweet both do solid work, with Sweet giving a relaxed and natural performance.

A Canterbury Tale is interesting in a lot of ways. At times it feel like it is pining for a dying (and now dead) way of life (look at the scenes with the wheelwright, a job that has likely completely died out now). It's also something of a tourist film, showing us glimpses of the quaint folk who live in the English countryside, and the way a GI reacts to them, but perhaps first and foremost it is propaganda, with the accent heavily on co-operation and friendship between British and American forces and civilians during the war effort. This seems especially hammered home in a storyline involving local village boys first playing at being armies and then helping to uncover the Glue Man.

Erwin Hillier's black and white cinematography is beautiful and crisp, he uses shadow beautifully, especially in the handful of night time scenes, and the vistas looking over the hills to Canterbury are expansive and stunning (a view I'm very familiar with, having ridden the bus into Canterbury most days for five years). between them, Powell and Hillier have created a striking looking film, even though, for my money, Powell's best work is in colour.

Ultimately, though I liked the characters, and was appropriately charmed by the film's ending, A Canterbury Tale seems a bit muddled, and a bit lightwieght compared to what I've previously seen from Powell and Pressburger, but it's still an engaging and enjoyable work, and one I suspect I'll grow to like more on rewatches. Now, where's the Chaucer?

Educate Yourself
If you buy A Canterbury Tale though these links you'll be getting the movie and helping out 24FPS at no extra cost. Awesome!

Next Lesson: The Taking of Pelham 123 ['74]

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