Friday, 8 March 2013

Gone to Earth

Powell and Pressburger made what to my mind are some of the greatest films of all time - not just greatest British films, but films full stop.  In a glorious run from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp through the The Red Shoes they showcased virtuoso direction, cinematography, and a grasp of the importance of place in their filmaking.

One of the things they did very well was evoking a sense of nature, most notably to the common viewer in I Know Where I'm Going, but it absolutely haunts all their work.  If you watch Powell's much earlier solo venture The Edge of World it quickly becomes clear that the island itself is the star, and the people crossing it of no more real importance than the sheep or the eagles.  It's about impermanence, more than anything, and the sense that sometimes you just have to give up on what you're doing, even at the expense of your life (whether physically, as you cling to the top of a sheer waterfall hundreds of feet above the rocks below; or more spiritually, turning your back on a way of life that has been core to your community for generations.  It must have taken real guts to write the sort of letter to your laird that begged for a steamer to evacuate your village.

Where the wheels slightly come off the wagon though is with the postwar Gone to Earth.  It's beautifully shot up on the Stiperstones, and around Much Wenlock.  There are some marvellous trademark Powell and Pressburger set pieces  - the full immersion baptism in the river, and the slow procession of the traction engine to the village show are as good as anything you will see in any of their other pictures.  They even managed to convincingly portray foxhunting (albeit with what look like beagles).  A common complaint of the connoisseur in everything from Brideshead Revisited to Downton Abbey is that the hunting is all wrong.  But there's none of that artificial blowing the hounds along to the horn and the start of the whip - these hounds are flying, right out ahead.  As an historical record it's marvellous.

I think the real weakness is the plot.  Gone to Earth is an adaptation from Mary Webb's novel, rather than a Pressburger screenplay, and to be quite honest it shows.  There's not much to be going on with here, it's basically Catherine Cookson avant la lettre and pretty thin gruel at that (with a slightly dubious rape/sexual assault plot thread). Jennifer Jones is not really leading lady material in this (and her accent is frankly risible - Long Mynd by way of Savannah maybe?), and the two leading men aren't given much to do except snarl (David Farrar) or pretty much stand around and invite people to walk over you (Cyril Cusack). Some of the supporting players are much better - Sybil Thorndike is solid as ever, and there's a great little cameo by the young George Cole.

It's a wonder there's any film to see at all in some ways.  David O Selznick (probably seeing the rushes and thinking "what in God's name have I just financed?") mauled it terribly so that by the time it went on general release in the US there was only something like 20 minutes of the original film left in it.  However, it was restored and re-surfaced at some point in the 1980s, permitting critical re-examination. This time around, the overriding opinion was more positive, but it has still sunk below the surface again - I had to buy a South Korean import....

So, what are we to make of Gone to Earth? Slender plot, variable acting certainly; but the ambition and skill of P&P manages to shine through regardless.  It's a love letter to rural England, and Shropshire in particular - and it deserves to be more widely viewed.  If I was trying to win new converts to the Powell and Pressburger shrine, there's no way on God's green earth that I would start them off on this film.  But, if you can get hold of it, and you've got an hour or two to spare, then do watch it. It wasn't quite the last of England, but it was very nearly the last of Powell and Pressburger.

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