Sunday, 27 November 2011

Notes on A Canterbury Tale

Given that it's the weekend, and a Sunday afternoon no less, I thought it would be worth writing up a matinee film...

Last week I looked at the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece "I Know Where I'm Going!" - I've had a couple of requests to give "Peeping Tom" the treatment, but today I'd rather re-examine their earlier wartime film "A Canterbury Tale."

ACT is in many ways a troubling film - it's clearly a lyrical hymn to England and a certain type of Englishness, but at the same time there is a definite undercurrent which, whilst not quite sinister, is somehow not quite as innocent as it might look either.

The plot is on the face of it quite slight, 3 modern day pilgrims waylaid on their way to Canterbury and forced to spend some time in the fictional town of Chillingbourne.  While there, Alison, a land girl, has an encounter with the Glue Man, a local figure notorious for pouring glue into the hair of village girls.  The rest of the film follows their efforts to unmask the culprit, before they head to Canterbury to complete their pilgrimage in different ways - either to receive a blessing, or, in the case of the Glue Man, to do penance.

It is the direction and cinematography of the film, as so often with P&P, that is the real glory, however.  The opening, where a swooping hawk is transformed into a diving Spitfire somewhere over the Kentish weald is rightly famous, but it is outclassed completely shortly before the end with a wonderful sequence where Alison walks through the bombed out streets of Canterbury - one of the great P&P moments.  There is a propaganda function to the film no doubt, of the gentler "Britain can take it" type rather than the more full on how-to-kill-a-German-invader that you might see in for example Cavalcanti's "Went the Day Well," but there's also something else; something far more interesting.

A Canterbury Tale is a celluloid record of an England that has utterly vanished.  The early scenes around the village, in the timber yard, the wheelwright's shop, or up on the weald, are straight out of Stanley Baldwin's idealised England, short only of the plough team coming over the hill.  In many ways, this part of the film unconsciously presages Ronald Blythe's much later literary work "Akenfield," capturing a record of a community unchanged for centuries being turned upside down by the rapid pace of technological change (in this case the arrival of Bren gun carriers and the United States Army in their quiet corner of a near mythic Albion).

Of course, it was never quite like that, but watching ACT it is difficult not to believe that well within living memory we were closer to John of Gaunt's demi-Eden than we are now.   I defy you to watch the mock battle between the gangs of local children without feeling an immense sadness and nostalgia for something that we've never known, and which probably never was.  Perhaps that's what gets to the heart of what's unsettling about ACT - it holds up a mirror to the English sense of self, to the hopes and fears of a nation at war, and yet is still relevant to the current generation of English men and women.  I  shows our country as we would like to imagine it, whilst pointing out the flaws with that dream.  At the same time, it holds out a tremendous sense of hope, of optimism, and the feeling that miracles really can happen to deserving people (and the undeserving).

A final word on the acting performances - all are competent (and the future Mrs Richard Attenborough is particularly luminous as Alison), but I want to say something very particular about Sergeant John Sweet, an amateur actor loaned fron the US Army.  Given that his entire acting career essentially was this film, he puts in a controlled performance well beyond what ought to be expected of someone of his experience, and he just doesn't get the credit that he should in my view.  Quite a talent there, that was never really followed up.

If this was just a hymn to P&P, I could wax lyrical about how they got around the fact that Pressburger (as an enemy alien), was refused permission to travel to Canterbury, leading to the construction of a replica of the cathedral interior at Denham studios just to get round the problem.  And about how that bleends seemlessly with genuine shots so that you would never have noticed the join if you hadn't been told.

But it's more than a hymn to P&P, it's a hymn to England.

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