Silence is Golden: a Reflection on English Silent Cinema (Review of A Cottage on Dartmoor)
(Directed by Anthony Asquith, 1929) Kino/BFI DVD
Watching a silent feature is a strange experience. Everything you expect as a modern viewer is stripped down to the very basics; except for the accompanying music, your senses have to adjust to periods of complete silence. Nevertheless, relying on physical acting and on artistic effects that were highly sophisticated for the time, many silent movies still have considerable impact and show the creativity and skill of their makers.
Anthony Asquith's A Cottage On Dartmoor is one of the best in the genre. Asquith, who would go on to make English classics such as Pygmalion (1938) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), exploited every cinematic trick available to him, using a combination of quick editing, lighting effects, different camera angles, and a variety of montage styles to produce a collection of highly detailed frames which enhance this relatively simple story.
The tense melodrama opens with a striking scene in which an escaped convict roams across Dartmoor, in pursuit of revenge against the woman who spurned his romantic advances. As the lone figure finds his way to the cottage of the film's title, the contrast between the darkness of the landscape and the early dawn produces some wonderful silhouettes that are clearly influenced by twenties expressionism. Together with the portentous piano accompaniment, these visuals create an ominous atmosphere. The man hides in the cottage, watching as his prey innocently puts her child to bed, but she suddenly feels a presence and turns to see him standing in the shadows. The camera sharply pans in for a close-up revealing his face, and the woman calls out "Joe!" to which he replies "Yes, Sally."
A flashback takes us to the beginning of their story, to show Joe (Uno Henning), a barber, working at a salon alongside Sally (Norah Baring), a pretty manicurist. We learn that Joe is infatuated with her, but, due to his introverted nature, is unable to express his true feelings. This becomes apparent when she invites him over to her boarding house for a visit, during which he becomes exasperated by the constant interruptions from her nosey, but funny, fellow boarders. Through his resulting awkwardness, he makes the normally buoyant Sally feel ill-at-ease.
After this failed attempt at courtship, Joe discovers that he is not the only man who is interested in Sally. His rival in love is Harry (Hans Schlettow), an affluent farmer and a larger-than-life character with a wide, pearly-white grin. Harry introduces himself to Sally while pampering himself at the salon, and Sally is extremely coy and flirtatious. This scene is followed by an amusing montage of Harry's subsequent visits to the salon, in which he samples all its male grooming treatments in order to get closer to Sally, before finally working up the courage to ask her out to one of the new 'talkie' pictures.
Meanwhile Joe is the epitome of brooding frustration as he watches them, visibly jealous of their blossoming relationship. Henning is excellent at portraying Joe’s metamorphosis from a shy and unassuming person into a neurotic fantasist, stalking the couple during their night out at the cinema, sitting behind them in the dark and conjuring up murderous visions. In this extended cinema scene, Asquith switches between the Joe-Harry-Sally love triangle and the rest of the cinema audience, who, from their reactions, appear to be watching a similarly-themed drama unfold on the screen. Asquith provides some light relief by briefly focussing on these other characters, showing their different personalities and quirks as they sit mesmerised by the film. In this scene he not only demonstrates the powerful mass appeal of early cinema, but also gives us a real sense of what it must have been like for film-goers to make the adjustment from silent films to talkies.
Next, there is a sweet interlude in which Harry proposes to Sally, but it is clearly only the calm before the storm, an anticipated confrontation that takes place at the salon. Asquith portrays Joe as a man close to the edge, menacingly sharpening his razor while he listens to the gossip of the other assistants, who have just heard about the engagement. Harry then gleefully waltzes in and is welcomed by his happy fiancée. Slow, burning suspense builds, with the three leading characters intimately confined in a small space: Joe shaves Harry, while Sally gives Harry a manicure. Then there is a sudden frenzy of activity when Joe notices the ring on Sally’s finger, snaps, and threatens Harry. This moment of anger is defined by a symbolic montage showing clips of a warship shooting off its guns, and some high-tension wire breaking. After the violent scene that follows, with a surreal frame in which a bottle of liquid smashes on the floor and its contents pour out like a pool of blood, Joe is led away by the police, vowing revenge.
Asquith instantly cuts back to the film's opening scene. In a stunning slow-motion shot, Joe emerges from the cottage's shadows, apparently to carry out his threat. However, it is reconciliation and not retribution that wins the day, as the director spins the finale in an unexpected direction, adding real depth to the main characters' emotional development. Joe's ultimate fate is not the product of his quest for vengeance, but of his love for Sally, and she in turn responds to this, while Harry recognises the intrinsic connection between her and Joe.
In making this picture, Asquith was celebrating the art of silent film-making as it reached its zenith, while at the same time acknowledging the dawn of a new era with the advent of sound—a point he makes acutely in the talkies scene. Because every shot is so intricately designed, A Cottage on Dartmoor is one of those films that you can watch over and over again, and still discover details that you haven't noticed before. Many of the scenes seem familiar, but only because they were imitated by better-known, later films in which the likes of Hitchcock and the Archers utilised similar lighting and camera techniques to create stunning atmospheric visuals. In modern movies dialogue is crucial for conveying a character's thoughts, but here this is achieved through a mixture of rhythmic editing and powerful symbolic montages that are inserted to evoke Joe's emotional state. Asquith also experiments with swift camera movements and close-ups, focussing on the eyes and facial expressions of the cast in order to capture their responses.
After almost eighty years, A Cottage on Dartmoor has recently been rediscovered. It gained real recognition after being shown at various film festivals (at the Barbican in 2006, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2007, and the Leeds International Film Festival in 2007). A newly released DVD from Kino features a fully restored print from the BFI, accompanied by a full-length documentary which examines the contribution of many English film-makers to the silent film genre. From May 2008 the film will also be available on a BFI DVD. --Kamran Riaz-Mohammed
Night Mail (Directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936) BFI DVD
This new release of Night Mail is in the category of great treats. Although the film is most famous for the brief ending collaboration by W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, in which Auden's rhythmic verse is matched with Britten's score to mimic the movement of the train as it puffs into Scotland, the entire film is well-made, deriving drama, excitement and human interest from what might appear to be a mundane job: ensuring that the post gets from Euston to Glasgow over-night.
Although a very short film, Night Mail is complex. The narrator may bewilder us with a barrage of facts and figures about the number of letters and the weight of mail carried, but the film transcends such trivia by evoking the dignity of labour. There are many heroic action shots of the workers as they perform hard and sometimes dangerous tasks, such as hauling in the heavy mail-bags as they drop from a post into the nets on the sides of the train. It captures their camaraderie—the good-humoured banter between the English crew and the Scottish crew as the first leaves and the second comes on board—and the nervousness of a new worker being trained. (All the acting was done by postal workers.) Cinematically, the film shows what can be achieved with primitive equipment and a tiny budget: in one sequence, the train passing behind some people on a platform is filmed so that it looks as if the people are gliding past the train, not vice versa. It provides atmospheric footage of now-vanished Northern industrial landscapes, presenting them as steam- and smoke-swathed panoramas seen from the train.
One could argue that the emotional significance of the Night Mail has dwindled, since letters are no longer the main way many of us keep in touch with our loved ones, but the lyrical and avant garde final section (similar to some other musical experiments of the period, such as Walton's Façade), still has the power to move: "This is the Night Mail crossing the border,/Bringing the cheque and the postal order,/Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,/The shop at the corner and the girl next door." Auden and Britten were both young when they worked together on the film, Britten a mere twenty-two and endearingly overawed by his new colleagues, confiding to his diary, "I feel very young and stupid when with these brains." In the superb liner notes (which include essays by Blake Morrison and Harry Watt, as well as Auden's poem and the verse homage that Morrison wrote for the 1986 film Nightmail 2, included on this disc), the film composer Miguel Mera explains that "The GPO [General Post Office] film unit was a hothouse for creative talent in the 1930s; a powerful, intellectual, experimental and left-wing environment," which explains why it attracted personalities such as Auden and Britten. At the time, documentary film was seen as an exciting new art form.
Of the four extra documentaries included in this release, the most note-worthy is The Way to the Sea, another Britten-Auden collaboration, though one that is flawed. When discussing the electrification of the railways to the seaside, the commentary by Auden (if that is who was responsible; from the credits, it is not entirely clear) suddenly lurches into over-blown drama: "The line waits! The trains wait! The drivers are waiting! Waiting for power!" It continues in this embarrassing way for the next ten minutes, which do, however, contain some poignant pre-war footage of English seaside holiday crowds.
The most famous film of the pre-war documentary movement, and a fascinating snapshot of a vanished time, Night Mail has been given a presentation worthy of it with the restored print on this stunning Collector's Edition. --Isabel Taylor
This beautiful, elegiac, and harrowing film combines the grittiness of traditional kitchen-sink realism with the impressionism of contemporary art-house cinema. Using an almost continuous soundtrack of musical pieces to weld together a series of vignettes from the lives of a Liverpool Catholic family, Terence Davies demonstrates how film can mimic the workings of memory, cutting non-sequentially between past and present to draw the viewer into actively reconstructing the family's past. Distant Voices, the first half of the film, is about the remoteness and ever-presence of childhood, while Still Lives portrays the children's experiences as adults.
Largely autobiographical (although, as Davies explains in his director's commentary, with some artistic licence here and there), the film depicts the family's hardships and pleasures from the Second World War to the late Fifties. It is often hard to watch because of its visceral depiction of domestic violence: the father, played by the brilliant Pete Postlethwaite in one of his most riveting and dangerous performances, is a complex man whose work frustrations are expressed in violence towards his wife. The abusive relationship between father and mother is mirrored in the marriages of the daughters, whose husbands, sensitive and romantic during courtship, become tyrants after the ceremony. With their sustaining female friendships outlawed by their husbands, they, like their mother, find their only solace in their children. This grim picture of working-class life in a particular time and place has an icy-cold cinematic edge, produced by washing out most of the colour so that each frame is almost monochrome. One particular visual detail-a photograph of Dad in happier times, lavishing affection on a donkey—recurs frequently to symbolise the continuity of family life, and provide ironic contrast with his viciousness towards his own family.
Davies' insight into the lives of women is profound, a product of being the youngest child and only boy in a family of sisters. Although the film focusses mainly on the self-perpetuating injustices of patriarchal family life, it is lightened by much wry humour, and occasional pub scenes in which the wives gain a brief respite from their lonely lives, catching up with their old friends and asserting themselves as marvellous singers. Relationships between mothers and children form the emotional bedrock of the film. In one scene from Distant Voices, as the mother sits, several floors up, in an open window to clean it as part of her unending cycle of domestic drudgery, a childish voice off-camera whispers "Don't fall, Mam. Please don't fall." Moments like this make the film endlessly moving and watchable, despite the misery it portrays.
The entire cast turn in brilliant performances, particularly Freda Dowie as the mother. The soundtrack is consistently well-judged, ranging from American crooners to English carols and folk-song, though the sheer amount of music is sometimes overwhelming. This release has a fully restored picture and sound, with generous extras, including a fat booklet with an essay by Beryl Bainbridge.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is a deeply rewarding film about the extremes of tenderness and tragedy that ordinary lives can contain. As the bittersweet ending unfolds, it is impossible not to weep.--Isabel Taylor