Neo-Romantic Landscapes: An Aesthetic Approach to the Films of Powell and Pressburger.
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008
ISBN (13): 9781847187444
(Review copy sent by Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
Aesthetically and culturally, the Archers are often regarded as the great outsiders of British Cinema, who followed European and Hollywood models rather than belonging to any specific national tradition. Grounded in recent critical attention to the aesthetic dimension of cinema, Stella Hockenhull argues that the pendulum should swing somewhat in a different direction to encompass understanding of films such as A Canterbury Tale(UK 1944), I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945), Black Narcissus (UK 1947) and Gone to Earth (UK 1950) as belonging to “part of a broader British cultural and aesthetic climate, that of Neo-Romanticism.” (p. 7) Utilizing an aesthetic and historical understanding of reception studies, the author argues that several Archers’ films employ a Neo-Romantic “Sublime experience which stirs up the imagination” (p. 15), a concept illustrated by Alison’s spiritual experience on the old Pilgrim’s Road in A Canterbury Tale, a sequence opening this book. This does not disavow the German expressionist elements in Archers cinema that previous critics have examined, but rather casts these associations in a new light in terms of concentrating on four films that form the basis for this study. Wisely noting the problems associated with defining the beginning and end of any movement, Hockenhull quotes art historian Robert Rosenblum who claims that Romanticism did not die out but was rather “reinterpreted through the work of a number of artists linked with German Expressionism such as Emil Nolde, whose work in turn, harked back to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Turner.” (p. 19). Hockenhull also significantly notes that British Neo-Romanticism was not a mere parochial tradition since it had its roots in a number of influences such as Surrealism as well as the art of Gustav Moreau and de Chirico, the latter of whom Powell cites in A Life in Movies as he reflects on Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (USA 1926). In this sense, the author’s understanding of Neo-Romantic influence represents a specific example of cross-fertilization prominent in the films chosen for examination.
These wartime and post-war films were products of an historical and spiritual national emergency. “Like the Neo-Romantic artists, Powell and Pressburger operated during a period of conflict where the populace was governed by fear. A quest for spiritual nourishment and faith might be regarded as a natural consequence of such circumstances.” (p. 22). This certainly applies to the different spiritual qualities endemic to A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going that form the basis of chapters two and three revealing that the Archers also belonged to a particular Neo-Romantic movement that flourished during the challenging era of World War Two, the ideas of which were championed in the British literary publication Horizon.
Such concepts appear in A Canterbury Tale with its emphasis on the spiritual values of the countryside as well as a re-worked notion of the Sublime endemic to wartime experience as argued by art historians such as Sillars “providing a means of dealing with the horrors of war” (p. 67). But I would be reluctant to define Colpeper as “a ministering spirit in the film” (p. 74) to the exclusion of his other darker connotations. Hockenhull makes persuasive claims for the influence of death as a preoccupation of neo-romantic painting and the sublime “affect” of A Canterbury Tale. The Scottish Hebrides location for I Know Where I’m Going also contains a Neo-Romantic sensibility especially in terms of seascapes and the sublime while the Himalayas of Black Narcissusprovides a similar “affect” in terms of its dramatic use of light, figural imagery, and the prominent role of the past. By the time of Gone to Earth, Neo-Romanticism is in decline but it still exists in a very different film whose audiences no longer experience “the same fears associated with war, or seeking spiritual nourishment.” (p. 149) This final chapter is the most documented and stimulating in the book suggesting new insights into understanding a film often marginalized in Archers studies against the background of post-war British cultural, political and social change.
These arguments represent a stimulating contribution for Archers scholarship suggesting new avenues for exploration, especially the British “painterly” tradition. However, one could have wished that the dissertation format had been revised for general publication purposes. Although a distinctive contribution to Archers scholarship, it is regretful that the price is far beyond the pocket of most academic and general readers and that the publishers obviously aimed at the direct-to-library market. Furthermore, despite the presence of some monochrome reproductions from films and paintings, the work really needs a lavish amount of visual reproductions (both in colour and black-and-white) that made earlier books such as Gombrich’s Art and Illusionso pleasurable to read and follow the specific arguments made. However, that era is long gone and an inflationist market now dominates most academic publications. Yet, this should not deter anyone who wishes to consider this innovative treatise.
Southern Illinois University, USA.