Tag: Roger Livesey

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A pilot is stranded between Earth and…somewhere else in this brilliant romantic fantasy

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven (Peter David Carter), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Kim Hunter (June), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw), Kathleen Byron (Officer Angel), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (Judge/Surgeon), Richard Attenborough (Pilot)

In the final days of World War II, a plane glides across the Channel in flames. The crew has bailed out, leaving only their skipper behind. Unknown to them, he’s not got a parachute – and is facing a choice between jumping or crashing to certain death. With only moments left to live, when is there a better time to fall in love? Quoting poetry and embracing what life he can in his final moments, Peter Carter (David Niven) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), the last person he expects to talk to. It’s stirring, sweeping, hugely romantic – and then Peter jumps at 50,000 feet.

So that’s it, right? Wrong. Peter washes up on the shores of Britain, not dead and practically on June’s doorstep. Happy ending? Perhaps not: at the end of a huge escalator linking our world to another (maybe the next?) Peter was expected. His “conductor” (Marius Goring), a French fop executed during the Revolution, whose job it was to take his soul “up” lost him in the fog. Now a man who isn’t supposed to be alive is walking around on Earth falling in love. Can it be allowed? Or will Peter need to head up that staircase? Or is all of this in fact in Peter’s head, a product of a head injury diagnosed by Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey)? Either way, Peter faces two trials: life-saving surgery on Earth and a tribunal in that other place to decide whether he stays on Earth or not.

When released in America, AMOLAD was renamed Stairway to Heaven – a title rightly hated by Michael Powell. Part of the magic – and there is a lot of magic realism here in the most beloved of all British filmic fables – is the film’s carefully measured ambiguity. The film superbly doesn’t give any answers. The two worlds are clearly, visually distinguished and when Goring’s Conductor and others descend to Earth to freeze time and converse with Peter, their appearance is always foreshadowed with the same symptoms (smells and headaches) Frank diagnoses as part of Peter’s condition.

The beauty of AMOLAD is how wonderfully gently it explores the struggle of two nations – here represented by Peter and June – to emerge from the trauma of war and return to everyday life. From a world where death lies around every corner – where your plane can plummet to fiery doom in moments – they must readjust to one of romantic picnics, amateur theatricals and games of table tennis. Peter’s struggle to survive his surgery is a beautiful metaphor for returning to a life full of hope, possibility and looking forward rather than backward.

It’s why the visual impact of the film is so important. “Heaven” is shot in crisp black-and-white. As the Conductor says when travelling down to Earth, “one is starved of Technicolor up there”. This Heaven is a place of peace, but also of bureaucratic efficiency. Arrival lounges are staffed with decent but practical Angels (Kathleen Bryon is marvellous as the first of these we meet – and there is a fabulous shot from Powell that frames her in front of a clock, making the edges of its face appear like a halo around her head). There are rules and paperwork – in fact a whole city of clerks and arrival lounges. What it doesn’t have is the warmth and passion – the colour – of Earth. Down here, everything is in luscious, gorgeous Technicolor. Up there life is restful, but monochrome.

Jack Cardiff’s photography of AMOLAD – combined with Powell’s astute visual eye – crafts one of the most ravishing films you’ll ever see. Blues, oranges and reds practically pour off the screen into your eyes. Filters add a golden hue to much of what we see. The ramshackle details of locations – Frank’s cluttered library with its piles of books, June’s country-house-base – see every single detail captured in painterly beauty, colours popping out. Only Peter’s surgery room feels like a bridge between ”Heaven” and Earth, cooler filters stressing their blues and cool icey whites.

This is what Peter is fighting to stay in. A world of colour, of joy and poetry. Perhaps “Heaven” is just his imagination of what the afterlife could be like. It resembles the military operations he has spent the last few years emersed in. It’s filled with the historical generations he taught at university. Familiar faces up there fight his corner and represent him at the great trial to decide his fate. His surgeon on Earth shares the face of his judge in “Heaven”. Powell and Pressburger don’t lean too far either way – it’s all gloriously left open to our imagination.

And who, in 1946, wouldn’t want to believe in a heaven as reassuringly welcoming as this. (On a side note it’s refreshing to see a film from the 40s that depicts such a racially diverse after life). One where all are equal and questions of colour and creed are left aside. “Heaven” is packed with soldiers from all across the world – and the sheer volume of uniforms up there reminds us of the trauma down here.

AMOLAD is all about the world we might decide to live in after the trauma of war. It’s also about forging lasting bonds between two nations bought together to fight. No one feels more English than David Niven: and AMOLAD is, arguably, his finest performance. He makes Peter a man of casual wit and lightly worn intelligence, but with hints of the burdens he has carried across years of war. He’s the best of us Brits – and now he has fallen in love with the best of America. June, wonderfully played by Kim Hunter, is practical, brave and grounded. Their love (and the life they could spend together) becomes the battleground at the heavenly trial.

On the one side: a prejudiced revolutionary American (played with gusto by Raymond Massey) – on the other the perfect embodiment of English decency. There could have been no better choice of actor for this than the glorious Roger Livesey. Livesey’s Frank Reeves becomes a mix of English eccentric, master surgeon and Prospero-like magus. It’s no coincidence that among his hobbies is a large camera obscura with which he observes events on his village streets with a protective, grandfatherly care. His study is lined with books, his knowledge is infinite and he is always open to Peter’s tales of heavenly staircases and visitations from mysterious conductors. Then as his advocate in “Heaven” it is he who has the clear sight and judgement to focus the jury not on what divides us, but what unites us – what makes us all human, not what drives us apart.

AMOLAD is about what brings us together. It’s open about the flaws of Britain – the first trial jury is awash with Boers, Indians and other victims of Empire – but also a celebration of its virtues. It celebrates the melting pot of America – the second trial jury is made-up of an incredibly diverse selection of American citizens – and is a hymn to personal freedoms. Farlan picks up on what divides Britain and America – cricket vs American dynamism – but what unites us is our desire for life. So what does it matter if Brits can be austere or Americans so brash they raid a coke dispenser on arrival in “Heaven”. We’re still cousins.

All this helps capture the film as a universal fable, of love being discovered in the magical boundaries between worlds (its no coincidence we see Midsummer Night’s Dream being rehearsed by an American cast under a British vicar). This is a quiet, decent struggle about emerging from the horrors of war into the chance of a new world of love. It’s a struggle for Peter and June that is both very personal and hugely universal.  Powell and Pressburger’s film captures this perfectly in a film that’s sublimely directed and never-endingly rich in dialogue and visuals. It perfectly offers up a universal fable that speaks to the heart. It’s perhaps why this is their most beloved – and finest – hour.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

league of gentlemen
Jack Hawkins plans the perfect crime in The League of Gentlemen

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Jack Hawkins (Lt Col Norman Hyde), Nigel Patrick (Major Peter Race), Roger Livesey (Captain “Padre” Mycroft), Richard Attenborough (Lt Edward Lexy), Bryan Forbes (Captain Martin Porthill), Kieron Moore (Captain Stevens), Terence Alexander (Major Rupert Rutland-Smith), Norman Bird (Captain Frank Weaver), Robert Coote (Brigadier “Bunny” Weaver), Nanette Newman (Elizabeth Rutland-Smith)

You throw a gentleman on the scrap heap at your peril. After a lifetime of service, Lt Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) has been made redundant – and, to put it bluntly, he’s pissed off. However, a gentleman doesn’t get mad, he gets even. And what better way to do that than using your army training to mastermind the finest bank heist Britain has ever seen? To pull it off, Hyde recruits a team of similarly disgruntled Army officers (all cashiered from the army for a range of offences, from theft to implied sexual demeanours) all of them highly trained specialists. What could possibly go wrong?

The League of Gentlemen was the first film from a short-lived British production company Allied Films. The company was a partnership between Dearden, Hawkins, Attenborough (who did a lot of the producing) and Forbes (who wrote the film’s witty, playful script). The film is a delight, a wonderfully executed heist movie, told with an archness that turns its criminals into sympathetic rogues. It’s really a sort of dry comedy and gets a lot of fun out of British attitudes at the time.

For starters, who would think that gentlemen like this (war heroes for goodness sake!) would ever be involved in anything so naughty as armed robbery? Especially in a country so deferential that – in a cunning raid to pinch guns from a military base – conman “Padre” (Roger Livesey, riffing delightfully on his Blimpish persona, as a conman with a shady past) simply turns up dressed as a superior officer and is instantly accepted as such. Just to complete the satire of prejudices at the time, the members of the team lifting the guns are ordered to speak with Irish accents as after all “We British never give the Irish the benefit of the doubt”, and even the a whiff of an Irish accent will whack the blame straight onto the IRA.

But this also a film having a bit of fun with demobilised fellows who have never quite found their place in civvie street – and may even miss the glamour and excitement of the war. Most of the team are clearly veterans of WW2, and many of them are struggling with demanding landlords, unfaithful wives or dismally dull jobs. How could they resist saddling up for one more grand adventure? Especially when there is a huge suitcase of money waiting for them at the end of it.

Dearden’s direction is taut, sharp but also gives more than enough room for the character comedy. He stages the heists with a briskness and efficiency that you can imagine Michael Mann being quite pleased with (the gas mask wearing, gun totting soldiers have more than a passing resemblance to the robbers in Heat – enough to make you think Mann may have watched this film somewhere along the line). Dearden’s storytelling is clear, well staged and inventive (the raid on the army base is shown to us without briefing, meaning we work out the plan as it progresses).

He’s helped enormously by Bryan Forbes’ fun and quotable script, that swiftly but skilfully distinguishes the characteristics of each man and their motivations and makes a perfect balance between affectionate comedy and the sharpness of danger (the group make clear they will “do what’s necessary” if pushed, even if they aim is no bloodshed). The film is built around several wonderful set pieces – and has a classic, almost pre-James Bond parody opening as Hawkins emerges from a manhole cover dressed in a dinner suit and climbs into a car.

Hawkins is great here, spoofing the troubled war heroes and authority figures he spent his whole career playing. Here he inverts all this straight-shooting, “Queen and country first” attitude into a man with the outside trappings of decency, but with a bitter heart and cynicism towards the world. He carries most of the film with a deceptive effortlessness, but nails the tone exactly between fun and genuine frustration at the world.

The whole cast follow his lead. Nigel Patrick is very good as a cashiered Major who enjoys mockingly parroting all the eccentric mannerisms of upper-class gentlemen. Livesey enjoys the self-parody almost as much as Hawkins (he spends nearly every seen looking like he’s only a few degrees away from giggling). Attenborough is fun as a chippy junior officer while Terence Alexander is great as a frustrated cuckold lost on civvie street. There isn’t a weak link in the whole cast.

The film is a delight, fun but with more than enough tension. It brilliantly captures a sense of the camaraderie and loyalty between these ex-soldiers, as well as their delight at being used able to use their skills one final time. It’s a film squarely on the side of these criminals thumbing their noses at the system (and who are planning as close as they can get to a victimless crime, albeit at gun point). The film has to give them some sort of comeuppance at the end – but you’ll be sorry to see it, as by then you’ll be invested at pulling off the heist as they are. Well directed, acted and written it’s a perfect entertainment.

The Entertainer (1960)

Laurence Olivier excels as a faded music hall star in The Entertainer

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Archie Rice), Brenda de Banzie (Phoebe Rice), Roger Livesey (Billy Rice), Joan Plowright (Jean Rice), Alan Bates (Frank Rice), Daniel Massey (Graham), Shirley Anne Field (Tina Lapford), Thora Hird (Mrs Lapford), Albert Finney (Mick Rice)

In the late 1950s Laurence Olivier was worried about his career. While he was still doing Shakespeare and Coward comedies (intermixed with the odd film), the world of acting and theatre was moving on. Not least as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was taking the West End by storm. Olivier seemed the polar opposite of the “Angry Young Men” of British theatre, a dusty relic. So Olivier changed gears – and his entire life – by asking to be cast in the lead role of Osborne’s next play The Entertainer. Olivier’s sensational stage performance – captured here on film – radically changed the path of both his career and his life, with his long-troubled marriage to Vivien Leigh broking down during it. But he also cemented himself as the leading British actor.

Olivier plays Archie Rice, a failing never-has-been end-of-pier comedy performer at an unnamed Seaside town in 1956. Rice’s routines are old-and-tired, his comedy tinged with desperation and he’s all but broke. Archie’s audiences are tired, bored and unamused. His home life, with his faded former beauty champ wife (Brenda de Banzie) is on the ropes due to his constant infidelity. His father (Roger Livesey) – a music hall celebrity with real talent – loves him but thinks he’s a disasater waiting to happen. His son Frank (Alan Bates) adores him but his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) is more realistic. Archie through continues to peddle the idea of a success being round the corner, trying to put together a hit revue starring his latest mistress (Shirley Anne Field) and funded by her parents. Things will not end well.

The Entertainer’s main claim to historical note is that it captures that sensational stage performance of Laurence Olivier in the lead role. Olivier had always liked to claim that, with a few zigs and zags in his career, he would have become a third-rate comedian. His performance – with its ingratiating patter, it’s seedy sexually ambivalent campness, his selfishness and self-obsession and greed – is brilliant. Archie’s entire life is a desperate struggle to get himself the career he wants – while trying to shut his eyes to his own lack of talent (of which he is painfully aware). Olivier captures superbly not only the front of a man bent on self-promotion, but also the dead-eyed horror of a man who is aware all the time that he is dying inside.

Olivier’s eyes are drill-holes of death, and his life is an exhibition of selfish patter, with a constant sense of performance in every inch of Archie’s life. He’s a run-down, finished and disillusioned man trying to pluck what few moments of pleasure he can from a life he is only going through the motions in. All of it covered with a coating of self-delusion that quickly crumbles into sweaty desperation. While the film can only give a taste of the Olivier stage performance, it re-enforces Olivier’s energy, creativity and bravery. Olivier’s both bravura and tragically tired music hall performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Away from Olivier’s exceptional capturing of the washed up patter of the sleazy loser, it’s easy to overlook most of the rest of the film. But it’s directed with a kitchen-sink freshness by Tony Richardson, who brilliantly captures the faded grandeur and grubby failure of a failing seaside resort. Osborne’s play used the decline of music hall as a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire and while the film (for all its Suez references) doesn’t quite convey this, favouring instead domestic tragedy, it still perfectly captures the crumbling world of Rice and his ilk. Rice’s father – Roger Livesey, excellent and about a year older than Olivier – is a relic of the success of this era, and still carries some of its glamour, but still lives as a virtual tenant in the Rice home, eating spare cake where he can.

While the film is dominated by Olivier, this presentation of the play as a domestic tragedy works rather well. Brenda de Banzie (also reprising her role from stage) is very good as an ex-glamour puss (and former mistress of Archie) now turned into a faded, depressed matron, drunkenly bitter about what her life has (not) led to. Joan Plowright is excellent as the knowing daughter, alternately sympathetic and appalled at her father. Shirley Anne Field’s naïve lover is suitably naïve, under the control of her battleaxe mother, well played by Thora Hird. The cast is rounded out with Alan Bates and Albert Finney (both in debuts) as Archie’s sons.

While the film feels a little overlong at times, and is perhaps too much in thrall to Olivier, it offers a neat kitchen-sink view of failure and corruption in British life of the 1950s. There is, of course, no hope and no second chances here. Only the long, wearying decline and rotting as Archie’s life disintegrates under pressure and his own incompetent self-delusion. 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook are friends who war cannot divide in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela “Johnny” Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck), James McKechnie (Lt “Spud” Wilson), David Hutcheson (Hoppy), Frith Banbury (David “Baby Face” Fitzroy), Muriel Aked (Aunt Margaret), John Laurie (Murdoch), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge)

Is there a film that has better captured the curious state of being British than The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? Could any other film makers than Powell and Pressburger take a doltish buffoon from newspaper comic strip, and turn him into a tragi-comic figure worth of Hamlet? Could any other film make a wartime propaganda film that features the most sympathetic depiction of the Germans anyone would see for decades to come? Winston Churchill was so scathing of the film that its US release was delayed for two years – and even then it was cut to ribbons. But then, I guess we knew already the guy wasn’t right about everything.

During the Blitz, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is a retired Major-General and now a senior commander in the Home Guard. Ambushed in a Turkish bath on the eve of a training exercise (by young officers keen to follow the German example of effective pre-emptive strikes), Candy rages at their dismissal of him as a relic from yesteryear. In flashback, we see Candy’s entire life over the course of the rest of the film. The film charts his military cross, from the Boer War to World War One and his life-long friendship with German officer Theo Kretschar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), after both men are hospitalised after a 1902 duel over insults to the German military. Both men fall in love with the same woman, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) although Clive realises it far too late – and their friendship ebbs and flows over the next forty years.

Powell and Pressburger’s film is, of course, quite beautifully made. The film has that distinctively radiant technicolour look of their most successful works, but it works so well because Powell assembles the whole so wonderfully. Powell knows when to hold a shot and when to look away and his judgement is never wrong. In the duel where Clive and Theo meet (Theo has been randomly selected to fight), the camera at first covers the detail of the prep, then moves to an over-the-head shot as it begins, before pulling out of the gymnasium and away, gliding into a long shot with Berlin sprinkled with snow. Because after all, the actual fight is immaterial to the sense of this being one event in the tapestry of life – and the moment of real importance being the friendship that came from it.

Then, much later, Powell does the exact opposite, holding a shot with powerful, emotional, simplicity. It’s 1939 and Theo is trying to remain in England – his wife having passed away, his sons being lost to Nazism and this adopted country being far closer to his old Prussian ideals of duty and fairplay. In a heartbreakingly low-key, simple speech – just exquisitely delivered by Anton Walbrook – Powell lets the entire speech play out in a single take, giving the moment room to breathe and magnifying its impact enormously – not least by the background extra who switches from shuffling his papers to listening intently to this heartfelt appeal.

It’s this mastery of technique that makes the impact of the film so wonderful – and helps it to masterfully capture the changing of an entire nation. Other the film’s forty years the entire world changes utterly, from one of simple truths where right is right and evils are punished, to the morally complex world of World War Two, where bending the rules and playing dirty might be just what is needed to defeat enemies with no principles. 

Candy is a man of unshakeable morals and ideals, who does not believe ends justify means and is determined that fighting honourably for defeat is far better than victory at all costs. It’s an idea the film affectionately praises, at the same time it sadly shakes its head and admits that such ideals were for the last century not this one. These are ideas Theo has captured far sooner than Candy – and Candy’s tragedy, among his many virtues, is that he always fails until it is almost too late to understand the truth of the world around him (be that politically or romantically).

It doesn’t matter really though, because we always know Candy’s heart is in the right place. In a sublime performance by Roger Livesey, this is a man with an upper-class bombast and a paternalistic regard for his duty and for others. His country and the ideals of that country come first and foremost – but it’s not about pushing those home. He will console honourable foes – as he does with Theo after World War One – and when the battle is over will be the first to say by-gones are by-gones. The film he is in a way a somewhat ridiculously old-fashioned character – but he’s always well-meaning, decent and honourable.

Candy also has the tragedy tinged sadness of not knowing what he wants until it’s too late. He doesn’t realise his affections for Edith Hunter, until she and Theo are telling him of their engagement (although we the audience are already well aware that Edith had feelings for him), and the look of realisation of a deep and lasting love that will last his whole life, is fabulously conveyed by Livesey in a perfect reaction shot. Candy will eventually marry Edith’s near doppelganger, but this unspoken love will last his whole life – and form another bond between him and Theo. Which in itself is what we like to think is a quality the British have at their best.

Along with that British fair-play that is so important to him, it also settles in the friendship between Theo and Clive. A friendship unaffected by tragedy or war (or at least not for long) and which, despite years apart, Clive frequently returns to with all the warmth and openness they first shared. These are bonds of loyalty forged on the playing fields, that operate on unspoken feelings (for a portion of their friendship Theo can’t even speak English). 

These are also the ideas and principles that Clive keeps alive in himself, even while the world becomes ever more bleak around him. He’s a character that never loses his essential positivity and kindness. Deaths or disappointed love are met with regret and then losing yourself in sport (whole years are hilariously shown to pass by montages showing Clive’s hunting trophies appear on walls). But always that British idea of (as Churchill put it) “keep buggering on”, and not letting infinite sadnesses and disappointments undermine or define you.

Powell and Pressburger use all this to make Candy not a joke – as the Lieutenant in the film’s prologue sees him – but as a deeply sympathetic and real man. It’s a film also about our disregard for the old, our failure to ever imagine that they were young. The flashback structure fills in this story beautifully. All this, and it’s not even to mention Deborah Kerr’s superb performance as all three of the women in this story, each subtle commentaries on the other and her return throughout somehow representing the perfect ideals that Clive and Theo are living to. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about understanding how the “rules” of British behaviour are underpinned by a deeper sadness it’s almost a duty to hide – and it understands that better than almost any other film.

Rembrandt (1936)

Charles Laughton excels as the great artist Rembrandt

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Rembrandt van Rijn), Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje Dircx), Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje Stoffels), Edward Chapman (Carel Fabritius), Walter Hudd (Frans Banning Cocq), Roger Livesey (Beggar Saul), John Bryning (Titus van Rijn), Sam Livesey (Auctioneer), Allan Jeayes (Dr Tulip), John Clements (Govaert Flinck), Raymond Hartley (Ludwick), Abraham Sofaer (Dr Menasseh)

There are many artists I really love, but right near the top is Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt is remembered as being misunderstood in his own lifetime – which is sort of true. In fact, Rembrandt’s style fell out of favour and he basically went on a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story not helped by constantly living outside of his means. Rembrandt actually follows the great man’s life pretty faithfully – and it even dances effectively around Rembrandt’s unusual domestic set-up.

The film begins with the death of the artist’s wife Saskia, and the rejection of The Night Watch by the Amsterdam militia. These events start a slow downward spiral for Rembrandt (Charles Laughton) towards a lack of fashion and an increased poverty. The film covers his consecutive relationships with Geertje Dircx (Gertrude Lawrence) and Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), before ending shortly before the artist’s death.

The film is dominated by Laughton’s magnificent performance in the lead role. Laughton can effortlessly bring to life the impression of genius. His Rembrandt is an observant, quick-witted and sharply intelligent man, whose eyes observe everything and records it for future use. Of course, for the look of Rembrandt, Laughton had a hell of a lot to go on – few artists did as many self-portraits as Rembrandt. But what Laughton manages here is to capture the essence of the artist – that sense of wry amusement and a slightly bumptious insolence you get from a Rembrandt self-portrait. 

Laughton also gives a warm humanity as well. In a wonderfully naturalistic performance, his Rembrandt is by turns gentle, amused, slightly naughty, wise – but always feels human. Korda’s film focuses on a part of his life, rather than the whole, which allows us to focus on the painter finding a more unique style and some domestic happiness – but only doing so after losing his wife and professional respect. He’s compelling to watch here, like the painter come to life: you can totally believe him, from when he’s berating the Guild for not understanding The Night Watch, to his befuddled hopelessness with money.

Korda’s film focuses on the personal rather than exploration of art – probably a good thing, since the style and grandeur of the original paintings is nearly impossible to capture in black-and-white academy ratio. This however works a charm, as we get two very contrasting lovers for Rembrandt, demonstrating different sides of his personality. Gertrude Lawrence excels as a shrewish, domineering Geertje Dircx, a woman who seems to take control of Rembrandt and his family after his wife’s Saskia’s death as if she is entitled to the role (interestingly Saskia doesn’t even appear in the film). A few weeks after Saskia’s death, Lawrence’s Geertje settles into the embrace of Rembrandt (who drifts into the relationship) with all the entitlement of an heiress.

By contrast Elsa Lanchaster portrays an earthier, gentler Hendrickje Stoffels, younger and more naïve than either Rembrandt or Geertje. If the first relationship saw Rembrandt as a man having his life organised for him, this second sees him sharing the role of parent. Having said that, while he obviously looks on Hendrickje with a loving fondness – and delights in making her happy and contented – it’s Hendrickje who effectively works out a dodge for the broke Rembrandt to keep trading art, and it’s she who takes runs the business for him. It’s a perfect marriage of personalities.

Although of course marriage is the one thing it can never be. Rembrandt was forbidden from re-marriage due to a complex arrangement in Saskia’s will: and a jilted Geertje quickly moves to have Hendrickje branded a whore. Considering it was filmed in the middle of the Hays Decency code, the film takes quite a modern stance on Rembrandt’s two long standing affairs: it’s clear that we are not meant to sympathise with the hypocritical burgomasters who denounce his love life (“It’s not fair. Why should he get away with it?” one of them moans). 

The narrative parallels this pair of romances with the world of art and commerce. Noticeably Rembrandt often seems more comfortable with those of a similar class to himself: he chats amiably with a beggar he hires as a model (a perfect little cameo from Roger Livesey), and similarly flirts with a woman from his home town at a bar with a confidence he never seems to manage with either of his other love interests. The film pivots around this return to Rembrandt’s family home, with the film suggesting the artist used this time to reassess his life and aims – before returning refreshed to shake up both his art and home life. Korda’s film argues that Rembrandt’s own rejections and losses gave him a far greater understanding and appreciation for his craft – and its power – than he otherwise would have had.

Korda films all this with a lushness, with the sets, costumes and visuals constantly reminiscent of the styles of Rembrandt’s own work. Just as Laughton plays Rembrandt as a very grounded, humane character, so the film avoids sweeping melodrama to portray a very low-key and gentle story, that feels sweetly lacking in high-blown artistic intensity. It’s perhaps best summed up by the closing scene, where an ageing Rembrandt – taken for an old nobody by some young bucks in an inn – smiles serenely, enjoying the company and quoting Scripture at them with gentle satisfaction. He’s the contented, humane master – the man who seemed to capture the age and changed painting for ever. And then he borrows money off a friend (who asks him to please spend it on food) and heads straight to the paint shop. A slave to an obsession, but a man who still inspired love and affection – what could be more human than that?

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller prove opposites can attract in Powell and Pressburger’s marvellous I Know Where I’m Going!

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Wendy Hiller (Joan Webster), Roger Livesey (Torquil MacNeil), Pamela Brown (Catriona), Finlay Currie (Ruairidh Mhor), George Craney (Mr Webster), Nancy Price (Mrs Crozier), Catherine Lacey (Mrs Robinson), Jean Cadall (Postmistress), John Laurie (John Campbell), Valentine Dyall (Mr Robinson)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is a young middle-class woman with ambitious aims who has worked to secure a marriage to a wealthy, much older, industrialist. En route to the wedding in Scotland, she gets stranded on the Isle of Mull by a storm. There, she finds a world of very different values and principles than her own. She also finds herself thrown together with naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) a man trying to return home for leave. Trapped on the island for days, Joan and Torquil find themselves romantically drawn together – however much Joan tries to avoid it.

Powell and Pressburger’s films all have a sense of filmic magic to them. They are the sort of films it’s very easy to fall in love with, and swear by. I Know Where I’m Going falls into that model extremely well – a dreamy romance in a stunning looking Scottish island, full of engaging characters and beautifully filmed. It’s a seemingly simple romance story, but it feels like a deep and engaging fable – it’s a film that shows how throwing a little uncertainty into a life can be a good thing.

Because Joan Webster categorically knows where she is going. The film’s entire build-up centres around her ambition and overwhelming focus. She literally dreams about marrying the engineering firm (yup that’s right, the firm itself not the man). She pushes her father into putting together a detailed itinerary for her entire journey. She seems to have no self-doubt whatsoever. So the magic of the film is that, deep down, it’s a about a woman realising that the place she has spent her whole life going, isn’t in fact where she wants to go. And the audience can see right away that she wants something else – much quicker than her!

This works because Powell and Pressburger get the romantic feeling of the island and its people so spot on. It’s very easy to get this Monarch of the Glen style Scottish idyll stuff feeling wearing and tedious. But somehow, it just sort of clicks. We don’t get the islanders’ charm and love of the simple life rammed down our throats, we just see how they behave and their simple contentment – and of course we have it compared all the time with Joan’s ruthless ambition. This combines really well with Powell and Pressburger’s lyrical style, their semi-magical romantic camera shots making the island seem hugely attractive (even when it is lashed with wind and rain).

By contrast our brief impression of the world outside Scotland seems cold and mechanical. It’s all offices, impersonal train booths, and besuited chaps giving stiff-collared responses. In a neat piece of cross cutting, one businessman even appears as if he has train steam puffing out of his top hat, like some human train. But we have hints that Joan has more romance under her skin than she would like to admit: as the train moves into Scotland (the film makes no real attempt at realism for its train shots) Joan dreams of the landscape they move through like some sort of tartan vision, with hills made of patchwork quilts. It’s one lovely image.

Then we have the arrival on the island – it’s got a charming, breezy openness about it. Out first introduction to Pamela Brown’s radiant Catriona is on a rainy hill with a pair of wolf hounds, before she bursts into a room (low angle cameras make her look even more romantic). Could the contrast with the mechanism of the rest of the world be more precisely made? There is a charming lack of interest in worldly affairs – the people are “not poor, they just haven’t got any money” – and what could be tiresome scenes set in ceilidhs and the like actually carry a lot of charm with them. Compare the vibrancy the islanders greet life with with the distant coldness of the wedding guests staying there – which group looks like the people you would like to spend time with?

The other thing that really works is the romantic relationship between Joan and Torquil doesn’t feel forced, or jump through too many clichéd hoops and feels organic and natural. The actors have fantastic chemistry, and the film playfully places them in a number of situations that drives this unspoken interest. It’s got more than a touch of screwball comedy about it – two people trapped together, one of them with mounting frustration – despite not really, as such, having a plot. 

Wendy Hiller is superb as Joan Webster – she brings a Katherine Hepburnish quality to the role: a determined, modern woman, a control freak in a situation where she has no power at all and hating every minute of it. What really works though is her own lack of self-knowledge. It’s clear to the viewer (and most of the characters) she is developing a deep attraction to Torquil, but Hiller makes it clear that Joan is completely unaware consciously of this. It’s a marvellous performance, totally relatable and hugely endearing, despite Joan’s ruthless certainty, because it’s always subtly puncturing that certainty with doubt.

Roger Livesey makes a perfect countpoint as Torquil. It’s a perfect role for him – a twinkly people-person, old-fashioned but not a stiff-upper lip cold-fish, who has dedicated his life to service, but can still enjoy himself. He also, in a way that many men in films of the time don’t, wears his feelings close to the surface. It’s clear he is in love with Joan from an early point, and every beat of his body language indicates this. At the ceilidh he can barely take his eyes from her – while his body language subtly (but not possessively) indicates his interest. He has an old-fashioned, casual, scruffy charm to him that never gets wearing. He’s also superb.

You’ve got a beautiful romance at the centre, with two characters it’s very difficult not to end up caring a great deal for. Beautifully acted – Pamela Brown is marvellous and Finlay Currie suitably gruff – it’s a film that feels distinctive, that makes charm and playfulness never feel wearing. Not much happens, but it’s beautiful, very sweet and extremely charming. You warm to these characters, and Powell and Pressburger create a world that feels incredibly attractive. There is some fine film-making here – from imaginative dream sequences, to intelligent visual choices that quietly influenced anyone making a film about the romance of the simple life. A little known treat.