Category Archives: United Kingdom

#323 The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp

(1943, The Archers)

“Can’t imagine anything more awful than to be a prisoner of war in England”

In 1930s Britain, a cartoon character emerged in one of the major papers, openly criticising the British establishment by being blundering, preposterous and full of hot air. Colonel Blimp was designed to be a satirical representation of British military officers who spoke with a great deal of authority on topics they didn’t understand and expressed very jingoistic views. In 1943, production team The Archers decided to develop this character further in a movie, exploring his life and expanding him into more than just a stereotype. And thus, The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp.

The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp focuses on Major-General Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), exploring his life through a series of lengthy flashbacks. Starting with his escapades in the Boer War in the early 20th century and leading through the World Wars, we witness his attempts to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of complicated diplomatic incidents and his growing affection for a woman named Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), and how this affects his decisions. Read the rest of this entry

#313 The 39 Steps

(1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

“I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel”

Hitchcock was an awesome director, as we’ve already established here on SvTM, but I find that much of his best work came during his later years as a filmmaker, and I’ve found it harder to get into some of his earlier British work. But I’m not giving up, as today we’ll be looking at another of his early British works and seeing how well it holds up today. Let’s examine The 39 Steps.

In typical Hitchcock style, The 39 Steps is about a man who ends up wrongfully accused of something he doesn’t fully understand. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in London, attends a performance by Mr Memory, a performer who claims he can remember all manner of facts. During the performance, shots are fired, and Hannay finds himself trying to help a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who reveals herself to be a spy, prompting Hannay to end up in an adventure of espionage and mystery.

The 39 Steps is a movie from Britain made before 1990. As a result, it suffers the same problem as every other pre-1990 British movie suffers from – it’s incredibly stiff and awkward. Character interactions are persistently marred by an insistent politeness and an obsessive fear of showing any kind of emotion. This, of course, affects the film before it even begins. It’s most notable in Hannay’s rather flat response to a random woman following him home and announcing that she’s a spy, which feels like a big thing that would elicit more questions than he seems willing to ask.

Fortunately, Hitchcock managed to tap through it a little. Just a little, mind, but it’s something. Some of the dry wit does feel dry in a way that’s genuinely amusing, there’s a sense of attraction between Hannay and his unwitting partner, Pamela (Madeline Carroll), and there are plenty of action-packed moments to hold the film together.

That said, The 39 Steps is a confused movie. While it’s not hard to follow by any means, there’s a feeling that things don’t piece together nearly as well as they do in later Hitchcock movies. Pamela is introduced quite late in the movie, an encounter with a mysterious professor seems to happen too soon, and generally moving from one scene to another feels slightly haphazard, as if it was all made up on the fly.

I think part of the reason the movie flows as well as it does despite these issues is because Hannay is a likeable protagonist. A witty and sarcastic chap, Hannay faces up to a lot of the weirdness he ends up wrapped up in with humour and quips. He clearly isn’t too pleased by what’s happened, but he seems to take it in his stride, and the audience ends up coasting along with him. At times his reactions can feel a little unrealistic and silly, but he’s so likeable that you really don’t care.

I also felt that much of the movie’s set pieces were hugely entertaining, from Hannay sliding across a train carriage to escape pursuers to a scene where he’s forced to give a political speech because he ducked through the wrong door at the wrong time. The central mystery is also intriguing enough that it keeps the film moving even when the film seems determined to not give you a direct answer.

The conclusion was also immensely satisfying, bringing everything full circle and wrapping things up nicely enough, leaving some ambiguities to keep us thinking even after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t answer everything but it concludes things nicely enough.

Overall, The 39 Steps is a good movie, but suffers from British stiffness that prevents it from being a great one. Makes for a good career starter for Hitchcock though.

Starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Lucie Mannheim & Godfrey Tearle
Written by John Buchan (novel) and Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Produced by Michael Balcon
Music by Jack Beaver & Louis Levy
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist

Favourite Scene: The scene where Hannay finds himself mistaken for a political candidate is hugely entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: A gunshot being stopped by a book continues to be implausible.

Watch it if: You want to see some of Hitchcock’s history
Avoid it if: You need the title explained to you immediately

#297 Breaking The Waves

(1996, Lars von Trier)
“Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to Hell”

Last time we saw Lars Von Trier on this blog, it was the harrowing and unexpectedly excellent Dancer In The Dark, where Bjork sang some songs and endured as life just got worse and worse for her over a period of time. Today’s film, Breaking The Waves, is apparently part of the same trilogy, which means another innocent woman is put through hell due to a cruel, heartless world. So, nice and happy movie then.

Breaking The Waves focuses on Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a young Scottish woman who lives in a very conservative village society. The movie hints at a history of psychological problems, which include her frequent discussions with God, who she believes responds to her in her own voice. She marries a Norwegian oil worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), although following a passionate honeymoon, Jan must leave to go and work on the rig. Later events leave Jan paralysed, causing him to demand that Bess go and take other lovers in his absence. It all goes wrong from there.

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#269 Great Expectations

(1946, David Lean)

“Pip, a young gentleman of great expectations”

UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGH period drama. As if to prove to me that an obsession with period drama based on dusty old literature is not a new phenomenon in British cinema, here’s Great Expectations, an old 1940s adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Go on then, let’s get this over with.

Like all Charles Dickens stories, this is the story of an orphan. It is the story of Pip (Anthony Wager / John Mills), a young orphan who encounters an escaped convict and visits a wealthy spinster named Miss Haversham (Martitia Hunt) as a companion for her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons / Valerie Hobson). Later in life, Pip inherits property from a mystery wealthy benefactor and moves to London to become a gentleman. Over time, he pursues Estella, tries to work out who the benefactor is and learns a few life lessons along the way.

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#259 Peeping Tom

(1960, Michael Powell)

“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear”

We’ve talked about The Archers before. A British production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with Powell doing the directing and Pressburger doing the production, and the two of them sharing writing duties. Their films were typically very stuffy British movies about things like ballet and nuns.

That was until Powell decided to go solo and make Peeping Tom, a movie about a serial killer. So a detective movie then? A Hitchcock-style thriller of mistaken identity? Well, not exactly. The serial killer is the protagonist, and this controversial choice caused the end of Powell’s directing career as a result of the backlash the movie received. Interesting. Let’s take a look.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), an amateur filmmaker in the process of making his secret masterpiece, a film about death that captures the expressions of women about to be murdered in gruesome detail. And how does he achieve these shots? Why, he goes out and kills women using a sharpened tripod, of course! Meanwhile, his neighbour Helen (Anna Massey) takes an interest in him and attempts to befriend him, unaware of his psychotic nature.

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#258 Brief Encounter

(1946, David Lean)
“I’ve fallen in love…I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

Bonus review this week! Yes, because today is Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a special romantic-themed review. Last year I went with an 80s romantic comedy, and this year I decided to go a little further back in time and review old British classic Brief Encounter, a romance about two people who have a…well, brief encounter and fall in love. Awwwww.

Problem is, both Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) are already married, and not to each other, which kind of throws a spanner in the works a little. Cue a turbulent affair and a tornado of feelings and emotions. So, not exactly the happiest romance movie ever then.

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#250 Frenzy

(1972, Alfred Hitchcock)

“You’re my type of woman”

Everyone knows Alfred Hitchcock did a lot of work in Hollywood, since many of his biggest films were made there, all concerning American things and set in America. But people tend to forget that Hitchcock started out in British cinema, and ultimately ended up returning to Britain shortly before his death. Frenzy is one of the movies made during this later period, but is it as good as any of his more well-known works?

In glorious London, a serial killer is on the loose, raping women and then strangling them to death with neckties. When Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), the manager of a successful dating agency, is murdered, circumstantial evidence places her ex-husband, Richard (Jon Finch) under suspicion. However, the movie makes it incredibly clear that the murderer is his friend, local market trader Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), while Richard goes on the run.

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#245 Withnail & I

(1987, Bruce Robinson)

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

Part of British movie culture is the Withnail & I Drinking Game. For every drink one of the characters in the movie has, you must drink the same, with the only exception being lighter fluid, which can be substituted for rum or something. But while this is part of our culture, the question remains, is the movie itself any good?

Withnail & I is about two out-of-work actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant), a drugged-up alcoholic with an inflated sense of self-importance, and, uh, “I” (Paul McGann), whose name we never learn, but also seems to be a bit more level-headed. Frustrated by their squalid flat and poor job prospects, Withnail convinces his wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to lend them his country cottage for a weekend break, which isn’t as helpful to them as first expected.

Often considered a classic of British comedy, I went into Withnail & I expecting a lot. I actually felt like I’d been missing out having never seen the film before despite it being such a classic. And now I’ve seen it, I can definitely say…I really had been missing out.

I hate reviewing comedies, since generally if I find them hilarious, that’s the end of it as far as my opinion goes, and Withnail & I is absolutely hilarious. It features lead characters who are utterly useless and grotty as hell, but never once overplays this, and is played surprisingly calmly all things considered, and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength.

Richard E Grant is the real star here, with his bumbling and drunken performance stealing the show. What’s impressive is how well Grant can maintain this spaced-out lazy slob of a man while keeping him charmingly well-spoken at all times. He might not be able to stop drinking or hang onto a pair of wellies, but he can pass for Shakespearian in his tone.

McGann is also fantastic, playing a much more level-headed character who spends most of his time exasperated by his friend’s actions. He’s the straight man to Grant’s funny man, and it’s a good dynamic. Not that McGann doesn’t have his fair share of comic moments, but overall his performance is the much more serious and subdued, and he does a great job.

The dialogue is also top-notch, with the conversations between the two being quick-witted with impeccable timing. I laughed out loud at Grant pleadingly delivering the quote at the top of the review, and the duo’s bafflement about how to kill and eat a live chicken is pure joy.

If I have any problem with Withnail & I, it’s the subplot about Monty, who is a repressed homosexual, preying on McGann’s character. While possibly fitting for the late 80s when the film was released, in today’s more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality, the whole sequence can feel a little uncomfortable and almost damaging.

But that’s about it. I struggle to explain exactly why I enjoyed Withnail beyond what I’ve stated, since I already stated I hate reviewing comedies, but needless to say this is a truly great comedy that has largely stood the test of time and deserves its classic status.

Starring Paul McGann & Richard E. Grant
Written by Bruce Robinson
Produced by Paul Heller
Music by David Dundas & Rick Wentworth
Cinematography by Peter Hannan
Edited by Alan Strachan

Favourite Scene: The perils of eating a chicken!
Scene That Bugged Me: Monty preying on McGann’s character was just unpleasant.

Watch it if: You want to see classic British comedy
Avoid it if: You’ve gone on holiday by mistake

#237 The Red Shoes

(1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

“A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer”

Ballet is an obsessive art, as has been pointed out many times over the years. One of the more recent works to demonstrate this was the excellent Black Swan, where Natalie Portman steadily lost her mind due to her obsessive dedication to her dreams of being a great dancer. But it’s not a new story. Back in 1948, The Archers produced a movie about ballet and tied it into Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tale of vanity, The Red Shoes.

The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, a girl who wants to become a great ballet dancer. After being snapped up by top ballet producer Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook) where she is eventually cast as lead dancer in a ballet based on the aforementioned fairy tale. The music is being composed by a talented young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and he and Page begin a romantic affair. However, due to the demands of Lermentov, Page must choose between Craster and her career as a dancer.

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#227 The Bridge On The River Kwai

(1957, David Lean)

“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war, not a game of cricket”

World War II movies continue to pour off the list, and while normally they like to focus on Hitler and the Holocaust, here’s one that’s different. The Bridge on The River Kwai is set during the Burma Campaign, where the British Commonwealth along with Chinese and American forces decided to give those Japanese fellows a right good thrashing.

Although it doesn’t really contain much thrashing. Instead, a troop of British soldiers led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) are captured and taken to a Japanese prison camp led by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), where the soldiers are all ordered to work on a new Bridge On The River Kwai. Nicholson stands his ground and demands that the officers are not put to work, because this would violate the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, an American soldier, Commander Shears (William Holden) plans to escape the camp, and later is recruited to destroy the bridge that the British are being told to make. There’s a lot going on here.

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