(Further Elucidatory notes from the first meeting of Dartmouth Park’s second best film club).
A Canterbury Tale
Dir: Michael Powell
On the other hand, there is plenty to say about A Canterbury Tale that hasn’t been said, as it is to my mind one of the great unrecognised masterpieces of British cinema. The problem is with it is how to describe something that is functionally indescribable. One of the best essays I’ve read on it is by Kim Newman, the Empire critic. The fact that this essay was part of a series on Extreme Cinema, more focussed around directors like Cronenberg, Lynch, Miike and Chan Woo-Park shows you just how extraordinarily odd the film is.
Like Touch of Evil, it isn’t perfect by any means. The wonderful I Know Where I’m Going is the nearest comparison among Powell’s other films, but where that film reins its sense of awe at history, location, nationality, nature and the potential of cinema into the form of a charming, shaggy romantic comedy, ACTis, for much of its running time, essentially plotless. What plot it does have (a US soldier seemingly incapable of getting a few miles down the road, and the search for an extremely odd public nuisance) gives “paper-thin” a bad name; the central performance (by Sgt John Sweet, an actual American soldier touring in a US Army production of Our Town, who gave his entire fee to the NAACP) is charming in that is so amateurish; and the moral lesson it apparently hands out just before the final, Canterbury section of the film is ambiguous in the extreme (to the extent that Archers stalwart Roger Livesey refused to take part in the film).
Films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes have a much more orderly and accomplished sense of brilliance to them. But what distinguishes A Canterbury Tale is a sense of unrestrained, mystical lyricism that is literally unlike anything else in film. It’s a soaring hymn to England by a man living at a time when all that it represented to him was under threat. Although despised as pretentious and ridiculous (both of which it is) at the time, it now seems to make a case for the country as a place worth fighting for more profoundly and more powerfully than any other – certainly more than the far more respected, successful, US-made Mrs. Miniver.
Sitting at the hitherto-unimaginable nexus between Ealing comedy, The Wind in The Willows, neo-realism, post-modern literature (Darkmans by Angela Barker has striking similarities), romantic poetry, Hammer horror, German expressionist cinema, conceptual art, folk music and carpentry, it is a inspiring one off, and a film that has enormous influence today (on, for instance, Days of Heaven, and as a result the far inferior There Will Be Blood). And it has a falcon turning into a spitfire, what else do you want?