Judge Clark Douglas' reviews have become vastly longer as his career has progressed.
Our review of Brief Encounter (1945) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published April 19th, 2016, is also available.
One of cinema's greatest writer/director collaborations.
"That's where art parts company with reality."
Facts of the Case
Long before he was best-known as the director of sprawling, untamed epics, David Lean joined forces with esteemed writer Noel Coward on a handful of intimate explorations of British life. Their four collaborations are collected in a new box set for your viewing pleasure.
In Which We Serve examines a group of British sailors desperately attempting to stay alive after surviving the destruction of their ship. As the men cling to the sides of a tiny lifeboat, we receive a series of flashbacks detailing their lives before the war.
This Happy Breed offers an in-depth examination of a family's life during the alternately peaceful and turbulent period between WWI and WWII. We watch as relationships grow and fall apart, as political viewpoints evolve, as people revel in life's triumphs and attempt to cope with horrible tragedies.
Blithe Spirit tells the story of a happily married man (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady) who hires a medium (Margaret Rutherford, Chimes at Midnight) in order to do some research for his latest book. Alas, when the medium manages to conjure up the spirit of his long-deceased first wife (Kay Hammond, Five Golden Hours), things get very complicated.
Brief Encounter examines a slow-burning love affair between a handsome doctor (Trevor Howard, Mutiny on the Bounty) and a lonely housewife (Celia Johnson, A Kid For Two Farthings). They both care about the kind-hearted people they're married to, but there's no denying the deep feelings they have for each other. Is there any hope that this illicit relationship will last?
Before receiving this box set, I had only seen one of the films it contained: the cheerfully silly Blithe Spirit. I liked the movie, but it certainly seemed like one of the less substantial efforts of director David Lean's career. Despite Noel Coward's considerable reputation, I kind of expected that these first four films from Lean would be minor efforts in contrast to his later achievements, small-scale warm-ups for greater things. However, after observing the films, I'm now convinced that this collection contains some of Lean's finest work.
In Which We Serve is a rare beast indeed: a propaganda film that also manages to be great art. Instead of clunky, obvious flag-waving, we have a sensitive and nuanced film which manages to be far more moving than most efforts of its sort. The film is dominated by Coward's presence more than any of the others—he wrote, produced, co-directed and starred—and it's immediately obvious what a personal, heartfelt endeavor it is for him. The war itself only serves as a framing sequence for the lengthy flashbacks, which give us detailed examinations of the lives of each of the characters. We see the relationships the men have, the kind of people they are and the little things in life they loved. The flashbacks are so persuasively immersive that it's always a little startling when we cut back to the lifeboat and remember that the person we've been getting to know so well is now bleeding to death. Many mocked the sophisticated Coward for casting himself as a military man, but his clipped, reserved performance carries the movie superbly and ultimately proves to be one of the film's strongest elements. Coward's writing is equally strong, and his inspirational speeches are resonant and truthful rather than the usual obvious, button-pushing affairs (there's a particularly touching speech Celia Johnson makes about the difficulties of being married to a man whose primary love is his ship). It's one of the finest war films of its era.
In some ways, This Happy Breed has a very similar vibe, as the whole film feels a bit like an 111-minute flashback. It's a masterful portrait of bourgeois British life in the shaky period between the two World Wars, and pulls off the difficult task of summarizing a nation's shifting viewpoints while simultaneously serving as an intimate, specific portrait of individuals. Think of it as a kinder, gentler predecessor to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (which offered an examination of German life in the time period leading up to WWI). The film is built on a series of superb conversation piece—a wedding, an unexpected death, a heated argument, etc.—but the fact that the film is based on a play is effectively masked by Lean's open, expansive direction. It's one of the finer examples I've seen of a director finding ways to open up dialogue-driven material. The core of the film is the touching relationship between Robert Newton (Oliver Twist) and Celia Johnson as the parents of the family the film centers on. They share a warm, understated chemistry throughout, and Newton's atypically gentle performance contrasts beautifully with Johnson's ever-increasing bitterness and rigidity. There's a good deal of heavy material in This Happy Breed, but Coward's trademark wit is successfully employed throughout, making the film considerably more entertaining than you might expect (to a lesser degree, the same can be said of In Which We Serve).
Blithe Spirit is very much the oddity of the collection, as it's the most tonally divergent from the other films included. It's based on one of Coward's most wildly popular plays, but Lean seems far less inspired by the material than he did with This Happy Breed. The basic story is entertaining, and the performances are stellar across the board. Rex Harrison is suitably callow as the exasperated husband, and Margaret Rutherford steals the show with her daffy turn as the legitimately gifted yet somewhat incompetent medium. However, while the film employs some then-revolutionary special effects, Lean often takes a "just set the camera down and observe" approach to the material which makes the whole thing feel a little static. Additionally, there are moments when the humor becomes a little exhausting, as the movie relies on a number of running gags which start to feel stale before we hit the finish line. It's fun to the degree that the source material is fun, but the movie fails to convince us it's a suitable substitute for the stage version.
The set concludes on a tremendous note with the lean (no pun intended), touching Brief Encounter. A mature, sensitive romance for grown-ups that gives full weight to the complicated feelings of its leads, the film deals with a difficult scenario in immensely moving fashion. There's a straightforward honesty that benefits the film a good deal; the movie never succumbs to overly theatrical melodrama in its examination of the romance. Though the movie is delicate in the way it approaches certain subjects, it never shies away from the reality of the situation. More importantly, it refuses to take the easy (and oft-traveled) road of transforming the unaware spouses into villains in order to make adulterous relationship more palatable. Though Howard's wife is never seen, Johnson's husband is a warm, good-hearted man who just happens to be kind of dull (he spends his evenings filling out crossword puzzles). Johnson is remarkable as a woman torn between her genuine devotion to her husband and the alarmingly reckless emotions she's experiencing, and Howard's unflappably lovestruck demeanor serves as effective contrast. It's a tremendous film, and its influence can still be seen in many other tales of forbidden love.
Criterion has done a fantastic job of restoring these films, as the transfers range from "very good" to "great." The best-looking of the bunch are Brief Encounter (with its crisp, striking black-and-white cinematography) and Blithe Spirit (with its robust, eye-popping Technicolor benefiting from remarkable stability and depth). In Which We Serve comes very close to matching that level of quality, though it's just slightly rougher than those two. The most noticeably problematic is This Happy Breed, which suffers from some frequent color fluctuations which become a little distracting. However, detail is magnificent on all four films, and there are very few scratches or flecks to be found anywhere. The PCM 1.0 Mono tracks are all solid, with Brief Encounter standing out as the highlight of the bunch (the swooning score sounds particularly rich and enveloping).
Each film is given its own Blu-ray disc, and each is accompanied by a handful of supplements. In Which We Serve gets a video interview with Coward expert Barry Day (16 minutes), a 25-minute featurette entitled "A Profile of In Which We Serve," an hour-long audio conversation between Coward and Richard Attenborough and a theatrical trailer. This Happy Breed receives another Day interview (15 minutes), a 44-minute interview with cinematographer and producer Ronald Neame (who discusses his work on all four films) and two trailers. Blithe Spirit gets a Day interview (11 minutes), a 50-minute episode of "The Southbank Show" which takes a look at Coward's life and a trailer. Finally, Brief Encounter gets a particularly generous package, offering an audio commentary with Bruce Eder, a final Day interview (16 minutes), a featurette entitled "A Profile of Brief Encounter" (25 minutes), an hour-long documentary by Lean entitled "David Lean: A Self-Portrait" and a trailer. Additionally, the set also includes a 45-page booklet which includes essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O'Brien and Kevin Brownlow. The films are contained in cardboard sleeves which are housed inside a cardboard box. It looks attractive, though it's a bit flimsier than I would like (it's basically a variation on the design of the America Lost and Found: The BBS Story box set).
David Lean Directs Noel Coward (Blu-ray) is a terrific box set well worth your time and money. You get three superb films plus one generally entertaining one, terrific transfers, crisp audio and informative bonus features. Plus, plowing through the entire collection feels like it goes by faster than a single viewing of Doctor Zhivago. Highly recommended.
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