Love on the Shattered Lens: Brief Encounter (dir by David Lean)


Flames of Passion is a British film from 1938.  I’ve seen the trailer but I’ve never actually seen the film and that’s kind of a shame because it’s a really good trailer.  Not only does it feature romance and adventure but it’s apparently based on a novel called Gentle Summer.  As someone who is fascinated by the power of a good title, I have to give credit to whoever changed that one.  Flames of Passion is far more intriguing than Gentle Summer.

Another reason that I want to see Flames of Passion is because it was apparently “Epoch-Making!!!”  In fact, they say so right in the trailer:

Unfortunately, I’ll never get a chance to actually see Flames of Passion.  As you probably already guessed, it’s a fictional film.  (I’m going to guess that “Epoch-Making” gave it away.)  It’s a fake film that plays a very important role in real film, the 1945 classic Brief Encounter.

Taking place in Britain shortly before the start of World War II, Brief Encounter tells the story of two people.  Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is respectable, middle class, and middle aged.  Every Thursday, she takes the train into a nearby town where she does the shopping and catches a matinee.  Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is a doctor who rides the train every Thursday so that he can help out at a local hospital.  Dr. Harvey volunteers at the hospital because that’s the type of person that he is.  He also volunteers, one Thursday, to help Laura get a piece of dirt out of her eye.

The next Thursday, Laura and Alec run into each other again.  They have coffee.  A week later, they have lunch.  A week after that, they go to the movies and they see the trailer for Flames of Passion.  Laura and Alec enjoy each other’s company and they quickly find themselves growing very close to one another.  The only problem is that, occasionally, Laura’s friends see the two of them together.  Laura knows how quickly gossip can be spread.

Actually, that’s not the only problem.  There’s actually an even bigger problem that neither Laura nor Alec know how to deal with.  Both of them are married and both of them have children.  In fact, Laura would appear to have the type of life that a lot of people would envy.  She has a nice home.  She has wonderful children.  She has a husband named Fred (Cyril Raymond) and there’s no doubt that Fred loves her.  Fred’s a good man but he’s boring, safe, and set-in-his-ways.  He’s the type who, when Laura mentions that she’s made a male friend and that she goes to the movies with him, barely looks up from the newspaper.

What is Laura to do?  She soon finds that her life is now centered around those Thursday meetings with Alec but are they worth the risk of losing her family?  And when Alec tells her that he’s been offered a job in South Africa, Laura realizes that she will soon no longer even have Thursday to which to look forward.

Brief Encounter is an interesting film.  From the minute that Alec and Laura meet, you know that they’re destined to fall for each other but nothing else about the film plays out in the way that you would expect it to.  As much as being a love story, it’s also a story about two people who have reached a point in their lives where they’ve reached the halfway mark of their lives and now they’re asking, “Is this it?”  It’s not just that Laura is attracted to Alec, though she certainly is.  It’s also that she knows that Alec represents what is probably her last chance to do something grand and romantic with her life.  Once Alec leaves, it’ll mean accepting her life as it is, with the good and the bad things that go along with it.

The film’s dialogue is as erudite and witty as you would expect from a cinematic adaptation of a Noel Coward play and David Lean keep the action moving along at a brisk pace.  Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are absolutely perfect as the two would-be lovers, with Johnson especially giving a powerful and sympathetic performance.  (If you don’t tear up during Laura’s final scene with Alec, you may want to check to see if you have a heart.)  It helps that neither one of them was a traditionally glamorous movie star.  (Trevor Howard may have been handsome but he was no Cary Grant.)  They come across as being very real people and it’s easy to imagine them being very happy together.  They’re such decent people that they even feel guilty for walking out on Flames of Passion, which Laura apparently did not feel was a particularly good movie.  Watching Brief Encounter, you wish that Alec and Laura could have met earlier but you are happy that they at least had their Thursdays.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Hamlet (dir by Laurence Olivier)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1948 best picture winner, Hamlet!)

Hamlet is a film of firsts.

It was the first British production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  In winning, it beat out three American films (Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one other British film (The Red Shoes).

It was also the first adaptation of Shakespeare to win Best Picture.  Of course, it wasn’t the first Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated.  That honor would go to 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet would be nominated in 1936, 1961, and 1968.  Henry V (which, like Hamlet, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier) was a 1946 nominee.  Then there was 1953’s Julius Caesar.  The Dresser featured scenes from Shakespeare.  Shakespeare in Love imagined the circumstances behind the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  However, Hamlet was the first to win.

It also remains the only traditional Shakespearean adaptation to win.  West Side Story updated Romeo and Juliet while Shakespeare in Love … well, let’s just not get into it.

It was the first Best Picture winner to be directed by the man starring in the movie.  Laurence Olivier was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor.  He lost the directing Oscar to John Huston but he won for his performance as Hamlet.  In winning, he became the first actor to direct himself to an Oscar.

Finally, Hamlet was the first of 24 films to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!  In fact, this was Lee’s film debut.  Now, before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that Cushing and Lee don’t actually interact.  In fact, Lee doesn’t even speak in the film.  He appears in the background as a Spear Carrier and it’s pretty much impossible to spot him.  He has no dialogue and wasn’t even listed in the final credits.  From what I’ve read, I don’t think Lee and Cushing even knew each other at the time and, when they later met, they were surprised to learn that they had both appeared in the film.  For his part, Cushing plays Osiric, the courtier who everyone remembers because he had such a cool name.

It’s always fun to play “what if.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in Olivier’s adaptation of the play.  To modern audiences, that might seem strange but, really, that’s just because we’re all familiar with the two characters from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  When Olivier filmed Hamlet, he excised portions of the play in the interest of time.  (Hamlet uncut runs over four hours.  Olivier’s version clocks in at nearly three.)  Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the second gravedigger are all dropped from Olivier’s version and, to be honest, none of them are particularly missed.

And yet … as I watched Hamlet, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Olivier had kept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern around and had cast Cushing and Lee in those roles.  It probably wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Cushing maybe but Lee was a total unknown at the time.  Still, how amazing would that have been?

As for the actual film, Olivier’s Hamlet turned out to be far more cinematic than I was anticipating.  Olivier’s camera snakes through the darkened hallways of Elsinore Castle while Olivier’s Hamlet veers between self-righteous fury and apparent madness as he seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney).  As Hamlet grows more obsessed with death and vengeance, the castle seems to grow darker and the hallways even more maze-like, as if the castle’s changing shape to conform with the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind.  Among the cast, Jean Simmons is poignantly fragile as Ophelia while Eileen Herlie is the perfect Gertrude, despite being 12 years younger than the actor playing her son.  Olivier gives a wonderfully physical performance as Hamlet, killing Polonious with a demented gleam in his eye and literally leaping towards his uncle at the end of the film.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that Shakespeare is boring … well, Olivier’s Hamlet probably won’t change your mind.  One thing I’ve noticed about the “Shakespeare is boring” crowd is that nothing can change their minds.  But, for the rest of us, Olivier’s Hamlet is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s more difficult play.

You won’t miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all.  And seriously, Fortinbras who?

The Fabulous Forties #26: The Way Ahead (dir by Carol Reed)


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The 26th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1944 British film, The Way Ahead (or, as it was retitled when it was released in America, The Immortal Battalion).

Directed by Carol Reed (who was five years away from directing the great The Third Man), The Way Ahead is a British propaganda film that was made to boost the morale of both a weary British public and the army during the final days of World War II.  Usually, when we call something propaganda, it’s meant as a term of disparagement but The Way Ahead is propaganda in the best possible way.

The film follows a group of British soldiers, from the moment that they are conscripted through their training to their first battle.  (In many ways, it’s like a more refined — which is another way of saying “more British” — version of Gung Ho!)  As usually happens in films like this, the newly conscripted soldiers come from all sections of society.  Some of them are poor.  Some of them are rich.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are single.  In fact, when the film first begins, the only thing that they all have in common is that they don’t want to be in the army.

As they begin their training, they resent their tough sergeant, Fletcher (William Hartnell), and are upset that Lt. Jim Perry (David Niven, giving a very likable performance) always seems to take Fletcher’s side in any dispute.  However, as time passes by, the soldiers start to realize that Fletcher is looking out for them and molding them into a cohesive unit.  Under his training, they go from being a group of disorganized and somewhat resentful individuals to being a tough and well-organized battalion.

Though they’re originally skeptical that they’ll ever see combat, the battalion is eventually sent to North Africa.  However, their ship is torpedoed and, in a scene that remains genuinely impressive even when viewed today, the men are forced to abandon ship while explosions and flames light up the night sky.  By the time that they do finally reach North Africa, they are more than ready to fight…

The Way Ahead plays out in a semi-documentary fashion (it even features a narrator who, at the end of the film, exhorts the audience to stay firm in their commitment) and it’s a fairly predictable film.  If you’ve ever seen a war film, you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in The Way Ahead.  That said, The Way Ahead is a remarkable well-made and well-acted film.  The cast is well-selected (and features a lot of familiar British characters actors, some making their film debut) and David Niven is the perfect choice for the mild-mannered but firm Lt. Perry.  Even though I’m not a huge fan of war films in general, I was still impressed with The Way Ahead.

And you can watch it below!

The Fabulous Forties #24: Passport to Pimlico (dir by Henry Cornelius)


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The 24th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1949 British comedy, Passport to Pimlico!  Even though Passport to Pimlico is very much a British film (for instance, I had to use Wikipedia to discover the Pimlico is a neighborhood in London) and definitely a product of its time, it’s still a film that felt very relevant to some of the things that all of us in America are dealing with today.  If nothing else, Passport to Pimlico is definitely more memorable than Freckles Comes Home.

Passport to Pimlico opens in London.  World War II may be over but the city is still in the process of rebuilding.  War-time rationing is still in effect and all the residents of Pimlico regularly have to deal with the endless red tape of bureaucracy.  As well, there’s still unexploded German bombs littered around the neighborhood.  When a group of local children accidentally blow one of those bombs up, it leads to the discovery of a previously hidden cellar.  Inside the cellar is everything you could hope to find in a mysterious room: artwork, jewelry, and coins.  There’s also a parchment from the 15th Century, in which the king of England ceded the neighborhood to the final Duke of Burgundy.  Because no one knew that the charter existed, it has also never been revoked.  As a result, all of the citizens of Pimlico are actually citizens of dukedom of Burgundy.

That means two things: First off, the citizens are legally required to live under the laws of Burgundy, despite the fact that the dukedom no longer exists and those laws haven’t been changed since the 1400s.  Secondly, the neighborhood is no longer governed by the restrictive bureaucracy of postwar Britain.  In short, Pimlico — or Burgundy, as it is now called — is a free and independent state.

Soon, the nation of Burgundy is being overrun by greedy businessmen and enthusiastic shoppers.  The British respond by surrounding Burgundy with barbed wire and announcing that no one may cross the border.  The Burgundians react by demanding that anyone riding the underground through their country have a passport or run the risk being kicked off the train.

And things only escalate from there.  The British government is desperate to put Burgundy in its place while the citizens of Burgundy are determined to maintain their independence.  If Passport to Pimlico were made today, this is probably one of those situations that would either end in tragedy or with everyone learning not to question the whims of the government.  Fortunately, Passport to Pimlico was made in 1949 and, as a result, it is a genuinely warm-hearted comedy that celebrates both individual freedom and patriotism.

And really, it’s an enjoyable little film.  The cast is full of British character actors, all of whom deliver their dialogue with just the right amount of snark.  I enjoyed it and I have to admit that I related to it a bit.  As I look at America today and I think about what it’s going to be like in 2017 (regardless of who wins the presidential election because, let’s be honest, they all suck), there’s a part of me that would love a chance to get out of this country and be a Burgundian.

Seriously, come 2017, I’m seceding!

Until then, I guess I can just watch Passport to Pimlico.