British cinema seems to come and go in stages. Trampled over by France and America in the early years of cinema, it took its time making a name for itself and whilst it is considered with some regard today, it certainly isn’t to the same degree as other cultures. It’s time to set the record straight. With British cinema currently backing names like Mike Leigh, Steve McQueen, Danny Boyle and Sam Mendes (to name but a few) it has been argued that it is currently experiencing something of a cinematic Golden Age. And perhaps it is. Whilst British cinema used to host a disparate name of directors, each working within an isolated artistic environment, now British names are very much working within their home nation, bringing the domestic drama to the forefront of cinematic production.
There was a time, however, when British cinema was even more prolific and arguably more successful. When world film production reached its height in the late 1930s, British cinema was moving into its first Golden Age, producing remarkable cinematic output during the 1940s. Wartime served the film industry well; David Lean was making Brief Encounter and Great Expectations, Carol Reed was making Odd Man Out and The Third Man and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were making, well, everything.
Powell and Pressburger sum up an entire moment in British cinema. Their cinematic output was so revelationary that even today, filmmakers cite them as influences in their work. What makes their work so lasting is perhaps the cultural crossover found in the director’s pairing; whilst Powell was British through and through, Pressburger was an emigré from Hungary, having moved before the Second World War to the UK. The cultural collaboration made the directors’ work enriched with a double understanding of history. Collectively, their voices spoke to many across Europe, talking both to the West and the East.
The directors’ works seem tinged with the Second World War and the changes happening across Europe during that time. Whilst not always referencing the War, their works were punctuated with a sense of unease and deep rooted change. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a wartime drama, influenced in name by a satirical comic strip already in production. The film spans a huge amount of time, telling the story of General Candy’s life in a series of flashbacks. Whilst WWII is only present at the end of his life, conflict and combat are major players of the film. More than anything, however, Candy’s life is shaped by the presence of three women, all played by Powell/Pressburger regular Deborah Kerr. The romantic plotline is common to Powell and Pressburger productions, wound within a war setting, upping the emotional ante. Whilst taking on a comic tone, Colonel Blimp is a huge, sprawling narrative film, allowing its audience to understand how time changes our perception of significant events.
One of many Powell/Pressburger films featuring a strong female presence at its heart, I Know Where I’m Going! was released at the end of the Second World War and therefore feels somewhat liberated. Set on a fictional Scottish island, the film follows a strong headed, ambitious woman, Joan Webster, as she travels north in order to get married. On her journey, however, she meets another man with whom she is initially infuriated. Whilst the narrative of I Know Where I’m Going! is fairly predictable, it doesn’t retract from the film’s success. The film’s raw relationship with the natural environment is quite astounding and, after the turmoils of WWII, comes as a welcome visual change. In the wilderness, Webster finds her individuality and free will. Away from the conflicts in society, people were free to be exactly who they wanted.
A Matter of Life and Death is perhaps the duo’s most famous work. Produced after the war (and therefore filmed in glorious technicolour), the film is a wartime love story in which two unlikely individuals fall in love across the global conflict. In the film’s famous opening sequence, pilot Peter Carter contacts American radio operator June to inform her that he is about to crash. In the moments leading up to his assumed death, the pair fall in love and share a touching last conversation. Except, of course, he doesn’t die. Due to an oversight made by the ‘Other World’, Carter survives the crash. The film then plays out like a fantastical courtroom drama as his Other World escort attempts to convince a jury to let him live. The story plays between the lines of reality and fantasy throughout and it is hard to determine between what is real and what is simply imagined. The film’s rose tinted view of the world could not have been more needed when it was released; when death was so prevalent in the world, Powell and Pressburger breathed a little life into a nation.
The pair’s most remarkable production, however, came some years later. The Red Shoes takes influence from the Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, incorporating the original story into the cinematic narrative. The film follows ballerina Vicky Page as she embarks on a career in dance, attempting to forgo any relationships for the sake of her profession. Of course, she falls in love and soon, there are tensions between what she does and who she loves, played out in tense and emotionally charged plot. The film’s shining light comes in an extended dance sequence in which Vicky performs the ballet of Anderson’s The Red Shoes. The scene is almost fantastical, influenced by surrealism and imagining it as if from Vicky’s subconscious. The scene plays out like an out of body experience, showing Vicky’s dance as something her body is doing to her, something which she has no control over. The Red Shoes captures utterly the process of an artist in the midst of their work, disjointed from the world around them.
Powell and Pressburger’s view of what cinema could be was utterly singular. Finding fantasy in reality, looking into the depths of the human brain, bringing laughter to a world damaged by war, the pair have lasted in cinema so resolutely precisely because they were so affected by their own history. Retelling what happened through a disjointed perspective, Powell and Pressburger made it possible to comprehend the madness of warfare and allowed their audiences to begin to consider life after catastrophe.