What Is British Cinema?: "A Canterbury Tale" (1944)

The majestic spires of Canterbury Cathedral, framed by bombed-out ruins in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944).  Nearly every essay or piece of writing about this film makes a point of insisting on its uncategorizability, its idiosyncrasy, and its outright strangeness.  It is a strange film, even from filmmakers as outlandish as Powell and Pressburger.  Their lush, feverishly pitched Black Narcissus (1947) is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the ballet sequences in The Red Shoes (1948) are justifiably great, but I’ve always been less excited by their other ’40s masterpieces; I never quite know what to do with them, and I certainly don’t know what to do with A Canterbury Tale, which is a kind of mystical fable/propaganda piece/mystery in which a divine-agent figure apparently goes around putting glue in women’s hair as a way of getting them to stop distracting soldiers from learning about their national heritage, or something.  (It’s a little bit like Black Narcissus’ mash-up of religious melodrama, colonial adventure, and Gothic horror, but weirder and more placid, and weirder still because it’s so placid.)  The climactic scenes are so touching that you feel that it’s been pulled off somehow, but you still don’t know how you got there, or why. 

Nevertheless, Powell and Pressburger remain great filmmakers precisely because their films can’t be easily placed.  Theories of genre can’t account for them.  They aren’t dramas, comedies, fantasies, or musicals: they’re Powell and Pressburger films, a genre unto itself.  Nor do they fit easily into nationalist narratives of cinema; even if there is something distinctly, undeniably British about them, you couldn’t account for them solely by thinking about them in the context of British cinema history.  Formally, they’re all quite different from one another: the silvery black-and-white English and Scottish landscapes of A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going! have little in common with the Technicolor stage-worlds of The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman.  Perhaps the most general statement that can be made about Powell and Pressburger’s films is that they are defiantly anti-realist, and even this requires qualification and specification.  The visual anti-realism of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, which make Expressionistic dreamscapes out of Paris or the Himalayas, is distinct from the narrative or tonal anti-realism of A Canterbury Tale, which was filmed on location in the fields and farms of Kent and which sets itself against the backdrop of the war, but which concerns itself with more ineffable matters—such as the mysterious thread that runs across centuries of history, binding people to places, linking the pilgrims of Chaucer’s day to an American G.I. from Utah—and perhaps even with the miraculous.  Powell and Pressburger’s films challenge claims that British cinema is “un-cinematic” or too deeply rooted in realism.  Their genius lies in their sheer uncategorizability—in their refusal to look, feel, or behave like any other films, British or otherwise.    

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