Friday, 9 October 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I spent two days in Canterbury a couple of years ago, partly because of my love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale (1944). The cathedral provided accommodation so I slept on the premises, and in the morning I walked into the actual cathedral before it was open to the public. I walked around in there all by myself; a very special thing to do. Then when it opened to the public I happened to be by the main entrance, and inadvertently greeted all those who walked in, including a group of school children. When they saw me standing there they said "Hello." or "Good morning.", and I responded in kind, even occasionally throwing in a "Welcome" as if I belonged there, as if it was my cathedral.


Even by the usual standards of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale (1944) is eccentric. Shot in Kent, in the area where Powell grew up, and made at the height of the war, when American soldiers had begun to arrive in Britain to help with the existential fight against the Germans, it is filled with a deep sense of England's history, the past and the present coming together in a perpetual now. In the opening sequence a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury in the 15th century looks up at a falcon in the sky, a falcon which suddenly becomes a fighter plane (a Spitfire or a Hurricane?) in the same part of the sky, 500 years later. This is then the time in which the rest of the film is set, but the past is still there, and can be felt, and heard. This is a film about time, and the importance of history. It is also a place about space, both the natural world and the man-made. The Kentish countryside; the forest, the hills, the farms, and the small town in which the film takes place, and Canterbury and its cathedral, where the film comes to its conclusion. Everything imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, almost pantheistic.

This is fairly typical of Powell and Pressburger, for them space is always of the outmost importance. It is not just there, it means something, it is alive and it influences the characters in the most profound ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. In A Canterbury Tale space is warm and benevolent, the natural world is protective, and we can hide in it, and seek comfort. An American soldier and an old English man form an immediate bond over their mutual love of trees and wood.

But there are also weird things going on, and there is a war. People are being killed, or have gone missing. Disappointments are to be had. But sometimes, miracles happen. Not due to otherworldly causes but because life is unpredictable and sends conflicting messages. Sometimes the worst happens but not always. Good things also happen, and happiness can be found, even if it takes roundabout ways.

John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price

A Canterbury Tale is a deeply moving experience. Partly because one can sense the urgency with which they made it. "This is where I was born and this is where I grew up." Powell seems to be saying. "We must protected this place and preserve it. This is worth fighting for." The fight here is not for freedom or democracy but for time and space itself. It is also moving due to the characters, the three main characters, the American soldier, a land girl from London and a British soldier who was a cinema organist before the war, who meet by chance and become friends during a couple of days in Kent. They all have reasons to be disappointed, even heartbroken, especially she. There is one especially fine scene when she finds the caravan, now covered in dust and cobweb, with which she once travelled around Kent with a boy, now shot down somewhere over Germany.

A Canterbury Tale is also peculiar in that it contains so many things: a detective story, sometimes shot like it was a film noir, a pastoral hymn, a fairytale, a propaganda film, a history lesson. But these things are not disconnected, they are woven tightly together, in a unique and spellbinding way. The films of Powell and Pressburger constantly ask of us to reconsider the way we look at things; time, space and characters, and this is true for A Canterbury Tale too. Nothing is to be taken for granted, there is magic everywhere, if you pay attention.


The year after A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger made I Know Where I'm Going, with which it is closely connected (and both are photographed by Erwin Hillier). It was shot in Scotland, on the isle of Mull. I have been there too, and the magic remains.


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  2. My favorite film in the world ever ever :) I'm so glad someone in this day and age 70 years after it was made, appreciates it as much as I do, and for the very same reasons! :D (though I'm no film buff, I just like what I like) but Powell & Pressburger films I adore!

  3. Have you seen "one of our aircraft is missing"? It took me two views to notice something strange about the film...something found in all films is missing...but it only makes the film better!

    1. Yes, I have seen it, but it was a long time ago. I did like it though.