A Neophyte and a Cosmopolitan Get Together and Create Magic: 'David Lean Directs Noël Coward'

In Which We Serve (1942)

A beautiful chronicle of British life during the war, a perfect example of propaganda and a detailed examination of creative evolution, this boxset is sure to become a staple in film lovers' libraries.

Brief Encounter

Director: David Lean
Cast: Noël Coward, Bernard Miles, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Trevor Howard
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2012-03-27

They say that war-times can call for some unlikely alliances, and such was the case when the worldly playwright Noël Coward began working with the inexperienced filmmaker David Lean. Coward had made a name for himself as Britain’s most cosmopolitan artist; a beloved figure of screen, stage and music, who had come to represent the highest standard of creative output in the post WWI era. His plays, both salacious and well thought, had started to lift the curtain on the sexual and intellectual practices of a society still trying to hide behind Victorian thought. With so many of his works devoted to exploring hedonism and the “good life”, it came as a slight surprise to some to find out that above it all, Coward was a fervent British patriot.

Upon the outbreak of WWII, he abandoned his work in the theater and sought to make something for the brave men and women of his country. He was enlisted by the Secret Service to use his celebrity status to influence opinion across the Atlantic, action which caused controversy among the people back home who assumed he was living like the characters in his plays, while Britain faced destruction. Frustrated by his inability to change the masses, Coward went back to what he did best and, persuaded by Winston Churchill, went back to entertaining.

In the summer of 1941 he was approached by the head producers of Two Cities Films, who were interested in making a propaganda film. Coward agreed to work for them only if he could have complete creative control in regards to the screenplay. Inspired by the sinking of the HMS Kelly, he wrote In Which We Serve, a stirring naval drama that tells the story of the HMS Torrin, a ship sunk by German destroyers.

In Which We Serve relies heavily on flashbacks to show the Torrin’s lifespan, from its construction to its eventual demise. Because the movie uses the crew’s memories to comprise its story, Coward is able to humanize the ship itself, something quite unseen during that era, but which helped the movie become a sensation with critics and audiences. To modern audiences, anything with obvious propagandistic undertones seems forced and to a certain level, disturbing. However, what Coward achieved back then was inspiring because it moved people, who felt as if the country of England was represented by a ship.

A lot of the film’s success is, of course, owed to its co-director. David Lean had achieved notoriety for his editing work in Powell & Pressburger’s own propagandistic films and even if he had never directed a feature film before, he was chosen to co-direct In Which We Serve with Coward. The writer’s sensibility is felt in the precision of the dialogues and the strong feeling of pride exuded by all the characters, Lean’s work, albeit more subdued, is obvious in his unobtrusive camera work. Lean’s editing experience gave the film the restraint it needed in the face of Coward’s powerful outpour. The movie now stands as one of the finest war movies made.

This Happy Breed (1944)

After realizing they made a good team, Coward and Lean worked together in three more movies, all adaptations of Coward’s plays. In 1944, the duo released This Happy Breed, a decade sprawling chronicle of the working-class Gibbons family, led by Frank (Robert Newton) and Ethel (Coward favorite Celia Johnson). The film takes place in the decades leading to WWII, which doesn’t mean it’s not a war film. In fact it serves as a touching reminder of why Britain was fighting to keep its freedom from Nazi rule.

The characters are endearing and the overall theme was meant to remind people of the values in British families. Despite This Happy Breed's melodramatic twists and turns, the tone never becomes pessimistic and, as they had done in their previous movie, another inanimate object seems to be the channel through which emotions are examined. In this movie, it’s the Gibbons’ house which serves as the setting for all the events we see.

Lean makes a superb use of space, allowing emptiness and closed camera angles to evoke key emotions. Watch the scene in which the parents learn that one of their children has died. Instead of focusing on what could’ve been a tearful powerhouse, Lean keeps the camera inside the house, while the news is revealed outside. Watching them enter the house, their entire world changed, is much more affecting than having seen them faint or cry in despair. The house represents their safety, the only place where the world of memories is kept alive.

The third entry in the Lean-Coward canon was Blithe Spirit, a sardonic comedy that dealt with the world of spiritism. Margaret Rutherford plays Madame Arcati, a medium who accidentally summons the spirit of Elvira (Kay Hammond), first wife of novelist Charles Condomime (Rex Harrison playing Rex Harrison) currently married to Ruth (Constance Cummings). Elvira’s ghost makes for a hilarious love triangle and the film is mostly remembered for its cunning visual effects and Coward’s raunchy dialogues.

However, deep beneath its polished surface and high society decadence lies a very tragic story that deals with the realization that the British people were in fact under threat of annihilation. With the war bringing more and more casualties, the idea of contacting the dead was not as loony as the movie must’ve made it seem. The play on which it's based was written by Coward well before the war, but under the perils of Nazi invasion the story added more profound layers. Were the dead to be seen as a laughing matter when life was clearly something so fragile? Was the idea of an afterlife a solace for those who lost friends and family on a daily basis?

Blithe Spirit (1945)

The handsome production of Blithe Spirit is remarkable because it stands as testament to the British need to entertain its people, while reminding us of the shifts in consciousness that make art so timeless.

The same year this comedy was released, Coward and Lean delivered their final movie together; the doomed romance drama Brief Encounter. Now considered one of the greatest movies of all time, this miniature piece started as a dare when Lean challenged Coward to make a feature film out of one of the one-act plays contained in his Tonight at 8:30 series. Coward chose Still Life and after Lean came up with the opening scene. Coward beautifully extended the tale of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife who begins a short, but chaste affair with the charming Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard in his first starring role).

The film’s plot has become a staple in the romance genre, but few movies made since pack the emotional punch of this masterpiece. Coward’s controlled screenplay is a masterwork in writing, but this was the first film where Lean truly demonstrated his skills as an aesthete. Borrowing elements from German expressionism and Neorrealism, he crafts a picture that -- no offense to Coward -- doesn’t need words to transmit its message of hopelessness and heartbreak. Using acute angles, shadows and precise editing, Lean composed the movie that best captured the incurable sense of loss left behind by a failed love affair.

Brief Encounter (1945)

The characters in the movie crave to leave it all and just be happy, and the movie they’re in explodes with symbolisms and life. Rarely do movies feel like organisms, yet this is what Brief Encounter does, with every minute in it feeling utter and completely alive. As the film swells towards its Rachmaninoff-propelled finalé, every element in the composition seems to be transmitting the desire repressed by the characters.

It makes sense, in retrospect, that Coward and Lean last collaborated in Brief Encounter given that, like the lovers in the film, they marked precedents in each others’ lives that only furthered their wondrous creative impulses.

The Criterion Collection has once again outdone itself with this remarkable boxset; a piece of anglophile perfection that can boast of being flawless from its packaging to its endless amount of bonus material. The films in the set have never looked better with the black and white in Brief Encounter attaining crispness and profundity, and the Technicolor in This Happy Breed acquiring the rich texture used to transmit the characters’ drabness.

All of the films feature discussions with Coward expert Barry Day, who makes fascinating points about seemingly innocuous things like Celia Johnson’s lack of movie beauty and the model ships used in In Which We Serve. Day’s spot-on references are a superb starting point for those just getting acquainted with these films.

The set also includes short making-of documentaries that chronicle the behind-the-scenes of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter. Most of the documentaries and featurettes focus on Coward, rather than Lean, which ought to subtract some points from the set if one was being petty.

The best piece on the director is a made-for-TV documentary called David Lean: A Self Portrait with Coward getting an equally enthralling biographical piece borrowed from The Southbank Show. One of the boxset’s most enjoyable features is an audio recording of a conversation between Coward and Richard Attenborough in which they discuss their film work and recount some delicious anecdotes. Rounding up the set are trailers of all the films and a marvelous booklet featuring essays by various film scholars.

David Lean Directs Noël Coward might be one of Criterion’s most formidable releases to date. While their Eclipse releases have been doing a great job in compiling films by their makers or themes, it’s always a pleasure to see them go all out on a tentpole release like this one. A beautiful chronicle of British life during the war, a perfect example of propaganda and a detailed examination of creative evolution, this boxset is sure to become a staple in film lovers' libraries.


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