When we think of British cinema as a movement, it is easy to look no further than social realist dramas of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, confrontational polemics that are as rooted in our everyday reality as a brutalist high-rise. But they are not the complete story.
Consider the films of Powell and Pressburger, an extraordinary directorial duo who were known collectively as The Archers. In 2017, the astonishing, transporting run of classics they released during the 1940’s remain underappreciated. Why? Their films don’t slip into a neat tradition, mixing Hollywood showmanship with a European zest for sensual moods and humane performances.
However, the biggest problem may have been the very nature of their partnership itself. Usually, one person will focus on the visual aspects while the other writes the script. You cannot divide Powell and Pressburger’s separate contributions so easily. Yes, Powell’s eye for an arresting image is unmatched, whereas Pressburger’s talent was for the screenplay, but these two artists worked together so closely that it is impossible to view their work as anything but a sinuous, shared vision. That was very difficult to swallow for 20th century critics trained in auteur theory, the popular view that all fine art is made by a single, struggling visionary.
“mixing Hollywood showmanship with a European zest for sensual moods and humane performances”
This, of course, is nonsense. Cinema has always been a collaborative endeavour. Could John Ford have made important westerns without John Wayne to star in them? No way. The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s masterful, romantic 1948 adaptation of Hans Christen Anderson’s dark fairytale, is yet another film that rebukes such critical myopia.
We follow Vicky (Moira Shearer), a ballerina who seeks, and eventually regrets, the mentorship of impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a controlling perfectionist whose productions are legend across the world. Their meeting is one of the most gripping conversations in film. Lermontov tries to trip Vicky up, asking, “Why do you want to dance?” “Why to do you want to live?’ is Vicky’s razor-sharp retort.
With that one, breath-taking sentence, Powell and Pressburger pose a question that has haunted artists since Aristotle; Can we live through art alone? And is everything else simply a distraction from the vital work we were born to create? When Vicky performs ‘Swan Lake’ at a damp town hall, Powell frames her perspiring face in a big close up, and we see how her eyes burn. She wants this more than life itself.
Impressed by her talent, Lermantov invites Vicky to star in a new production of ‘The Red Shoes’- a neat piece of ominous meta-foreshadowing. He promises to make her a star, providing she obeys his every command. She cannot go to late parties. She must train tirelessly. And she must never fall in love. Vicky thrives under these conditions until she meets Julian (Marius Goring), an inspired composer who Lermantov hires to write the music for the new production. Their romantic connection sparks a rift that threatens to tear their newfound careers apart.
Other than Fellini’s 8 ½, I cannot imagine another film with a richer understanding of the creative mind. Shot in vivid three-strip technicolour by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the film has the flushed glow of a half-remembered dream, every shot a head-spinning forward plunge into the character’s divided psyches. Make no mistake; this is one of the most visually entrancing films ever made.
Another facet of the film’s diamond-hard brilliance is its inclusive view of creativity. There is a terrific scene towards the middle of the picture where Lermontov calls a meeting with his key crew members to discuss the production. Powell and Pressburger stage the conference so director, production designer, composer, choreographer, and star share the same wide frame, reminding us that these professionals are all masters of their craft, all essential to the creation of a shared creative work.
“Powell and Pressburger pose a question that has haunted artists since Aristotle; Can we live through art alone?”
Still, if you need an excuse to revisit a 60-year-old celluloid curio, then wait for the unforgettable 25-minute sequence where ‘The Red Shoes’ the show gets its premiere in Paris. Instead of locking his camera down in the stalls and watching the stage from afar, Powell shoots the ballet from the perspective of the dancers, using cunning edits, subjective camerawork and hallucinatory superimpositions to immerse us in Vicky’s mind as she loses herself in the ecstasy of performance. It’s a directorial masterclass that inspired Martin Scorsese’s approach to the legendary boxing bouts in Raging Bull.
Such weighty ideas and ravishing setpieces could collapse a lesser film, but Powell and Pressburger never miss a step, moving from joy to horror as elegantly as the doomed dancer at the film’s heart. Bravo!