Critic Andrew Sarris once referred to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the 1943 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as the British Citizen Kane — and even claimed to prefer it to Welles’ classic — while his colleague Dave Kehr declared it to be “quite possibly the greatest film ever made in Britain.” The most remarkable thing about Blimp is not the fact that it easily justifies both of these assessments, but that its makers went on to write, produce, and direct six more equally great films during the following six years. To experience the vivid emotions and images of I Know Where I’m Going, The Red Shoes, or any of the other Powell-Pressburger films made between 1943 and 1949, is to encounter artists in total command of their medium — filmmakers with bold ideas and the technical skill to express them.
The second of these features, A Canterbury Tale, is also a triumphant achievement. Not an adaptation of Chaucer as much as a piece inspired by his sensibility, the film is a typically rich Powell-Pressburger meditation on love, duty, and patriotism. Set in the period when American soldiers were arriving in England to prepare for D-Day, the story follows three searchers: an American sergeant who longs for the woman he left back home; a recruit from the Women’s Land Army mourning the death of her lover; and a resourceful British sergeant who joins forces with the other two to solve a crime in the small village where they all find themselves.
The mystery plot in the film is really just an excuse Powell and Pressburger use to examine issues both timely and timeless. The movie is intensely engaged with the concerns of its period, notably the complications that arose when American soldiers entered areas in which English women had been left alone by their own fighting men. Yet its exploration of the reasons we fight in the first place, and the price that both men and women pay, remains relevant and affecting today. This relevance is largely due to the filmmakers’ overwhelming affection for their characters, all of whom are rendered with great complexity and care; even the movie’s ostensible villain is granted moments of great dignity and poignancy.
Powell and Pressburger’s gener-osity of spirit finds its perfect visual corollary in Erwin Hillier, BSC’s luminous cinematography. Each character is lovingly lit and framed, and every location shimmers with sunlit radiance. The film is an odd blend of documentary realism (in the form of scenes depicting the particulars of village life in great detail) and poetic stylization (the many romantic, melodramatic moments in which the characters expose their deepest feelings). The most interesting aspect of Hillier’s photography is his active avoidance of the expected; as film historian Ian Christie points out on the DVD commentary track, the movie finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and vice versa. Right from the beginning, when Hillier lights a conventional expository scene as though it were a sequence from an ominous film noir, A Canterbury Tale exhibits a tendency toward the most unlikely and unpredictable forms of visual expression.
However, Hillier’s stylization is not just a gimmick; it always complements and adds additional layers to the drama. The movie’s unspoken theme is that of enlightenment and revelation, and Hillier makes this concept concrete by using wartime blackouts to create scenes in which characters move between literal extremes of light and darkness. The subtle contrasts of Hillier’s work are beautifully preserved on the DVD’s hi-def transfer, though there are a few more scratches in the source material than one typically sees on a Criterion disc. The monaural soundtrack is crisp and clear, allowing the listener to savor the nuances of Pressburger’s dialogue.
As usual, Criterion has provided a substantial supplementary section, the highlight of which is the aforementioned commentary track. Christie, who has been writing about Powell and Pressburger for decades, has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of insights and anecdotes relating not only to the filmmakers, but also to British cinema history in general.
The movie is further contextualized by a pair of engaging interviews with its stars. The disc includes a new interview with actress Sheila Sim (now Lady Attenborough) shot especially for this release, and a short documentary on actor John Sweet’s return to Canterbury 50 years after the film’s production. Both of these featurettes contain delightful stories about Powell and the making of A Canterbury Tale, and reveal the actors to be as endearing as the characters they play. Other extras include scenes with Kim Hunter that were shot for the American release, a prologue and epilogue that made the entire story a flashback. A tour of the movie’s real-life locations and a video installation inspired by A Canterbury Tale and the classic 1942 documentary Listen to Britain round out the supplements.