Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 09 August 2006
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
There are few narrative films in which the gulf between exterior aspects — character and plot — and deeper symbolic intent is as wide as in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime masterpiece A Canterbury Tale. The divergence between the superficialities of story and setting and the profound truths the filmmakers are attempting to express is uniquely broad, and endlessly fascinating. On the surface a bucolic, even naïve portrait of English rural life during wartime, the film builds and develops, layering inference and intent until on almost every level the question of what the film is really ‘about’ seems all but unanswerable—the answer changes by the minute as our sympathies are questioned, our beliefs challenged, questions of history and identity are raised, examined and set aside, genres toyed with and discarded amid tonal shifts as liquid and unexpected as sunlight bursting through clouds, or through the projector onto the screen itself.
The plot is deceptively daft: three young people arrive at the village of Chillingbourne in the heart of England’s garden, in the war-torn summer of 1943. Alison is a land girl, an all-new breed of English rose: beautiful but self contained and capable. Peter Gibbs is a sergeant in the British Army, confident almost to a fault. Sgt Bob Johnson is a GI on leave, adrift in a foreign landscape but determined to make the best of it. Together they become involved in the mystery of the ‘glue man’, a shady character who haunts the village streets at night pouring adhesive into the hair of passing girls. Following the clues, they implicate local magistrate Colpeper, whose stern demeanour hides a passionate obsession with the local landscape and its history. The film climaxes with a trip to nearby Canterbury, a modern-day pilgrimage to view the magnificent cathedral, in which the riddle of the glue man is solved, and each protagonist receives their own individual blessing.
This description barely begins to scratch the surface. Like all of Powell and Pressburger’s classic collaborations, A Canterbury Tale is immaculately constructed, the set design flawless and instantly transporting, the lighting and photography almost preternaturally perfect. The locations are glorious, the rural tranquillity of Chillingbourne giving way to the strident majesty of the cathedral, every landscape, every drifting cloud lovingly depicted in shimmering white and silver. The attention to detail is breathtaking, from the ornate tracery of the ceiling in Alison’s room to the bombed-out desolation of central Canterbury, not a prop, not a blade of grass seems out of place.
But this is all to be expected. What marks A Canterbury Tale out from other British films — and from other Michael Powell films — is what lies beneath the surface, or rather far above it: the film luxuriates in a visual depiction of heightened awareness, characters tilting their faces to the sky in memory or concentration, as though straining to glimpse a grander truth. As an audience we are in the same position, raising our eyes to the screen in hope of receiving a similar epiphany, an awakening, our very own Canterbury blessing.
Powell was a Kent native, these rolling hills the landscape of his boyhood. And it almost feels as though throughout the film we are being presented with an odd sort of sideways autobiography, from the carefree urchins splashing through the river shallows, to the brash, regrettable overconfidence of Gibbs and Johnson to the dark, self-loathing but somehow noble obsessions of Colpeper, the glue man himself. For Colpeper is the heart of the film, by a fair stretch the most interesting, conflicted, carefully constructed character, and it’s meaning is inextricably bound to his perverse, lonely quest. The character is first presented in stark and unquestionably threatening terms, leaning forward behind his desk, brows arched and superior. Alison and Peter’s suspicions are immediately shared by the audience—Colpeper is a creep, just the sort to be accosting innocents in the dead of night. And those suspicions are quickly confirmed as the three heroes dig deeper into the mystery—a speedy resolution seems inevitable. But our feelings towards Colpeper begin to change, first at the lecture, where the evangelical force of his speech is tempered by a ready wit and childlike eagerness.
It has been noted elsewhere that Powell and Pressburger’s antiheroes are often the real focus of the film, from Bernsdorff in 49th Parallel and Lermontov in The Red Shoes all the way through to Mark in Peeping Tom. Colpeper shares traits with each of these characters- there is a fascistic tendency in the character, Powell undoubtedly aware that in his fascination with history and tradition he shares a great deal with Hitler’s Nazis. Both the lecture scene and the final train carriage unmasking go to great lengths to highlight these dangerous parallels: Colpeper is lit as starkly as possible, his wide eyes fixing his audience (and us) with an almost messianic stare, the certainty and righteousness of his cause written plain cross his face. There is also a broad streak of vicious misogyny in the character. It’s no mistake that, like Mark, Colpeper targets young women, sneaking upon them unawares and splattering them with ‘sticky stuff.’ His prepubescent distaste for matters of the flesh expresses itself in dark outbursts of chauvinistic rage, an attempt to drive all the women away, at least until he meets Alison.
And it is her effect on him which changes his nature, and therein the nature of the film. The centrepiece scene takes place on a hillside overlooking the distant city, as Alison lets her thoughts wander back into the time of pilgrims, and the sounds of their passage begin to infiltrate the modern world. In the wake of this magical interruption Colpeper’s appearance is unsettling but somehow inevitable, springing from the grass like an elemental creature, a growing thing. This is his natural habitat, he belongs to the land as much as the land belongs to him. The passion in his speech brings us around to his way of thinking, an understanding of his love for this place and it’s past. And Alison is drawn in along with us, lying close to him until they’re almost touching, side by side in the tall grass.
In contrast to Colpeper’s rehabilitation the other characters, particularly Gibbs, begin to seem cruel and invasive. The British sergeant’s prying starts to feel like bullying, with Colpeper the victim of a dreadful sociological misunderstanding, flying the flag for a fading world Gibbs couldn’t even begin to understand. The final act, in which the characters unmask Colpeper and complete their pilgrimage, is one of the most unusual, intriguing and orgiastic sequences in all of Powell’s work. The glue man’s wisdom leads Gibbs towards his Canterbury blessing, a miracle he didn’t even know he wanted, and an important lesson in humility. Johnson, on the other hand, is already willing to accept Colpeper’s defence, and it is this zenlike open-mindedness that allows him to fully experience the pleasures of ancient Canterbury, and so receive his reward (in his wide- eyed, unquestioning enthusiasm for the world and all it’s surprises, real-life GI Sweet closely resembles the young David Lynch, adding yet another level of oddity to an already strange brew). Alison’s blessing is the most surprising, contrived but still somehow effective, as she learns of the miraculous deliverance of her fiancé, an airman presumed killed over Germany.
Up to this point the overriding mood has been one of pastoral wistfulness, interspersed with moments of light and shade, comedy and threat. But gradually the tempo shifts to one of expectation and suspense, a steadily mounting musical and visual crescendo, operatic in its forcefulness, Vaughn-Williams mugged by Wagner. Alison’s quest through the bombed backstreets is imbued with urgency and significance, Johnson’s fascination with the stone and legend of the Cathedral and the road takes on an almost religious devotion. When Gibbs is granted the opportunity to play the church organ it seems like the culmination of a life heretofore half- lived, the chance of a new beginning for all, even Colpeper. The final hymn, fading into the manic chiming of bells, stirs in the viewer an overwhelming confusion of emotions, a transcendent mystical bliss that seems to come from nowhere, but has in fact been steadily building since the film began.