Monday, December 18, 2006

Movie To See: Powell & Pressburger's
A CANTERBURY TALE

Because the team of Powell and Pressburger are responsible for one of my very most favorite movies of all time (THE RED SHOES), and because they are the team behind some high quality oldies (BLACK NARCISSUS, THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING), I put A CANTERBURY TALE in my Netflix queue.

Amazon.com summarizes it this way:
Originally conceived as good-natured propaganda to support the British-American alliance of World War II, the film became something truly special in the hands of the Archers (a.k.a. writer/director/producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). Taking its literary cues from Chaucer's titular classic, it begins with a prologue that harkens back to Chaucer's time before match-cutting to present-day August of 1943, with the night-time arrival of U.S. Army Sgt. Bob Johnson (played with folksy charm by John Sweet, an actual American GI) on the shadowy platform of Canterbury station in the magically rural county of Kent (where Powell was born and raised). He is soon joined by two fellow train passengers: Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a brashly independent recruit in the British Woman's Land Army; and Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a sergeant in the royal Army, and before long they're tracking clues to find "the glue man," a mysterious figure who's been pouring "the sticky stuff" on unsuspecting women as the midnight hour approaches. Their investigation leads to Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a village squire whose local slide-shows celebrate life in an idyllic rural England threatened by wartime change. As Graham Fuller writes in an observant mini-essay that accompanies this DVD, is this a whodunit? Historical documentary? War film? Rustic comedy? It's all these and so much more: As photographed in glorious black and white by Erwin Hiller (faithfully preserved by one of Criterion's finest high-definition digital transfers), A Canterbury Tale has an elusive, magical quality that encompasses its trio of Canterbury "pilgrims" and translates into a an elusive, spiritually uplifting sense of elation that has made it an all-time favorite among film lovers around the world


Astonishingly good. Gorgeously done. Intimate, yet with large themes. Mystical, yet down-to-earth.

I'd hate to give away too much, since I do recommend you catch this oldie. I will that the way they've tied in Chaucer's tale with a modern settings and concerns (for then, this was during WWII), and the way they offer a slice of British life from a bygone era, and the depiction of the inexorable pull of fate toward the ancient holy place--well, it's just what one expects from P & P. Highest quality film-making with excellent characterization and beautiful shots of another time and place.

The actors aren't stars, which is good. One of the leads was just what he seemed to be: a U.S. army sergeant. The young woman who plays Allison has a healthy, sturdy attractiveness that isn't over-the-top Hollywood glamour. You believe her as someone who would love to live on a farm. The Brit off-to-war guy is energetic and mischievous and out to do the right thing as he sees it. The mysterious Mr. Colpepper seems very threatening and controlling in some scenes, and as if he were having visions in others, so that he ends up being fascinating and creepy and, ultimately, surprising. The film seems to imbue his character with an enigmatic depth that is hard to explain. It's just gotta be seen. You'll either loathe him or sympathize with him. But you won't remain neutral.

The ending is moving and satisfying, and the cinematography and direction is top-notch. I felt spiritually touched at the finale, and rewound it to see the scenes inside the cathedral again.

It's a movie that makes room for an invisible, but active, God.

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