A Canterbury Tale Review

The review of the film is substantially the same as my earlier review of the Criterion Collection edition. Go to the DVD section for details on the specification of the Institut Lumière edition and for a comparison with the Criterion edition.

A cut between a medieval hawk and a WWII Spitfire right at the start of A Canterbury Tale, immediately signals the essential English qualities of this early film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a film once almost lost to obscurity, but rediscovered in the 1970s. In a leap of 600 years the jump cut links the historic mystical quality of a part of England that in olden time would draw pilgrims from all over the country with a new kind of pilgrimage that draws people to there on account of the war.

Three of these new pilgrims displaced by the war find themselves meeting at the train station of Chillingbourne, a sleepy little village in East Kent. Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) has moved out to be a land girl on the estate of the local magistrate Mr Colpeper (Eric Portman), helping the war effort by doing vital work in the country. Bob Johnson (John Sweet) is a US sergeant, on his way to London via Canterbury to meet an army colleague, but he has alighted at the wrong station. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) is a British soldier, also a sergeant, down to join-up with the large number of troops amassing there for a secret military manoeuvre. Despite having the company of two soldiers, Alison is however assaulted by a strange character who takes advantage of the blackout to smear glue into her hair, before making an escape in the direction of the town hall. On their brief stay in the village, they are determined to uncover the identity of the notorious Glue Man, who has attacked many other young girls in the area, and also understand the mystery behind his strange behaviour.

Each of the three characters are troubled by events from their past, without being completely aware of how much it has affected them. Alison has been to that part of the country before and is aware of its famous heritage as a route of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. She once spent a summer there in a caravan with her fiancé, a geologist who has since died in the war. Her journey back there will take her back to Canterbury, where the caravan has been held in storage at a garage. The US soldier Bob hasn’t received any mail from his girlfriend since he has been posted abroad and fears the worst. Delayed by his error with the train stations, he arranges to meet his colleague in Canterbury instead of travelling all the way to London. Peter, the British soldier worked as a civilian as an organist in a cinema, never achieving his ambition to be a church organist. He makes the journey to Canterbury with the rest of his company who are about to be shipped off to join the war. The trip to Canterbury bestows a blessing on each of these modern-day pilgrims.

A Canterbury Tale is essentially a wartime propaganda film, but through the artistry of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger it achieves far much more that that. Certainly, the film celebrates the war effort by the women of the country, Alison’s investigations into the Glue Man’s activities bringing her into contact with other strong independent women, doing heavy work on the farms, delivering the mail, and operating the railway junctions. Alison herself is described by Bob as “needing about as much help as a Flying Fortress”. The film also brings together people from the country and the town, troops from America and the UK, and shows them all finding a means of working together, being involved in something productive, attending lectures and gaining a knowledge of the history of the countryside, respecting its heritage and thereby understanding what it is they are fighting for. Incredibly (and controversially) in a quintessentially English manner, it’s through the trivial little affair of the Glue Man mystery and a village populated by lovable eccentrics, rather than through any wartime action heroics, that Powell and Pressburger invest the film with this serious purpose and ideal.

This light-hearted and curiously paced manner in which the three characters make their practically accidental and haphazard “pilgrimage” to Canterbury belies the force with which the filmmakers achieve the blessings that are bestowed upon them. Through mystical plays of light, an accompaniment of Allan Gray’s music supplemented by Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’, a hymn and a rousing procession of soldiers through the streets of Canterbury, Powell and Pressburger help each of the characters achieve an earthly epiphany, much in the manner that they would later bestow upon their characters in A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going! and Black Narcissus. Beyond the obvious earthly boons they receive at the end of the film, what they have really gained through their encounter with the Glue Man is the partaking in the shared spiritual experience of what Michael Powell would consider the heavenly beauty of the Kent countryside.

A Canterbury Tale is released in France by the Institut Lumière. The DVD is presented as a 2-disc set, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The disc is entirely English friendly, with removable French subtitles from the film, and all extra features either in English, or subtitled in English. It is included in one of two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger boxsets and is also available separately. The DVD is available from the Institut Lumière website.

A beautifully photographed film making strong use of light and shadow, A Canterbury Tale looks quite impressive on this French Institut Lumière edition. It’s slightly on the soft side and a little bit hazy in places, but the tones are fine and black levels are strong. A fair amount of minor dustspots, marks and tramline scratches remain on the print, but there is no damage that has any significant effect on visual impact of the film. There is some instability however, quite noticeable early in the film, particularly in the scene where the pilgrims converse with Charlie Hawtrey’s stationmaster, and there is a fair amount of minor light flickering throughout. Overall, the print would be considered most impressive by any standard except in comparison to the Criterion Collection edition. See below for a comparison.

The mono audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is fine throughout. There is a nice tone, with only a little roughness or crackle at the higher end of voices.

There are no hard of hearing English subtitles here, only optional French subtitles.

The extra features are spread across the two discs. Disc one contains an Introduction (7:26) by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, covering the film’s themes of pilgrimage, the link to the past and neo-romanticism in a wartime setting. He also looks at the influence of his filmmaking collaborators on A Canterbury Tale, and examines the make-up of the characters.

Original Trailers are also included for A Canterbury Tale (2:03), I Know Where I’m Going! (2:05), Peeping Tom, Black Narcissus (2:27), The Red Shoes (2:22) and The 49th Parallel (3:01).

Disc 2 contains the main extra features, providing a good overview of the film, the wartime period in which it is set, and its place among Powell and Pressburger’s films. Memories of Michael (9:04) is the 6th part of a longer interview with Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell spread over the other discs in the collection. Here, with illustrative clips from his films, talks about how the rhythm of the composition was achieved, the personal difficulties Powell was going through while making the film, and the director’s personal views on religious feeling and reincarnation which feed through in a significant way into the film.

The Daring Of An Adventurer (20:05) is a more detailed examination of the film by Bertrand Tavernier, expanding on the Introduction. Clearly passionate about the film, and the great impact it has had on him, he analyses the mysterious elements of the film and the insight into the director’s personality and views that comes though in each of the characters.

Pilgrim’s Return (22:28)
Filmed in 2001, Sweet is interviewed in the coffee-shop location at the end of the film. Now seemingly a Starbucks, it says rather a lot about how the times have changed, something Sweet is able to recognise coming back and seeing the film in its full form for the first time in many years. He also talks about his how the film affected his own personal outlook on life.

Portrayal of War in British Cinema (25:34)
Charles Drazin gives a good overview of the resurgence in British cinema during the 1930s and 1940s and the impact of the war on subject matter. He particularly looks at it in relation to the earliest Powell and Pressburger films, how they were financed, how the subjects were chosen and how the filmmakers nevertheless managed to invest a lot of their own unique personal touch into the films.

Comparison with US Criterion Collection Edition
The Institut Lumière transfer looks very nice on this DVD edition, but it pales in comparison to the impressive video transfer on the Criterion. The Criterion is quite evidently sharper and more detailed with greater definition across the greyscale, from the luminous whites to the deep, rich blacks. The Lumière edition actually comes across as quite flat in comparison, particularly looking murky in shadows where the Criterion reveals greater detail. The Criterion has its share of marks and scratches also, but perhaps slightly less than the Lumière. The Criterion is certainly more stable from the telecine transfer point of view and has comparatively little fluctuation in light levels. Grain is slightly more visible in the Criterion, but I would see that as a positive rather than a negative. The only downside to the Criterion is that it is window-boxed and NTSC, while the Lumière uses the full-frame PAL, making full use of the resolution available. There is little difference in the audio mixes, other than the Criterion being Dolby Digital 1.0 and the Lumière 2.0 mono. The extra features only have the John Sweet feature in common. The Lumière edition’s features iare more analytical of the film itself, putting it well into its historical context and as a part of the wider work of Powell and Pressburger, while the Criterion has a very informative commentary track. A fuller description of the Criterion Collection edition can be found here. Screenshot comparisons are provided below – the Institut Lumière R2 above, the Criterion R1 below. Click on the images to view them enlarged in a pop-up window.

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Filmed as a wartime propaganda film, A Canterbury Tale is nonetheless suffused with the love of the director Michael Powell for the beloved countryside Kent locations that he grew up in as a child. It’s partly the nostalgic elements of the film, of a lost England of country blacksmiths and gentlemen farmers, and the community spirit of everyone pulling together that give Pressburger and Powell’s film a great deal of its charm. Powell’s evocation of the place and the people is certainly idealised and overly reverential, but it is the manner in which he conveys its qualities that is so remarkable. The quintessential Englishness of the locations are found in the unusual pacing and the sheer eccentricity of the bizarre mystery at the heart of the film itself, as well as in the remarkable ending which comes quite out of nowhere and lifts the film onto a higher artistic plane. The Institut Lumière 2-DVD edition presents the film well, with good features and a fine transfer, but good as it is, it’s no substitute for the Criterion.

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