David Lean Directs Noel Coward Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Four Distinctly British Films From a Fruitful Partnership

Before his name became synonymous with the widescreen epic, David Lean began his directorial career working closely with playwright Noël Coward to create a series of distinctly British films about ordinary people surrounded by or recovering from war. Collected in a fantastic box set by the Criterion Collection, these four films feature stunning transfers created by using the BFI’s 2008 restorations and showcase Lean’s deft ability to pair striking images with Coward’s sparkling wit.

The films included are:

In Which We Serve (1942)
Before becoming a director, Lean worked primarily in the film business as an editor, and just before helming In Which We Serve, Lean edited Powell and Pressburger’s propaganda classics 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing. Lean certainly took a page or two from the Archers in his first film (Coward co-directed here, his only such credit), as In Which We Serve manages to be a stirring, richly drawn portrait of wartime men not cheapened by its propagandistic purposes.

Opening with an Eisensteinian montage of the HMS Torrin weathering a brutal German aerial attack, the film soon fleshes out its characters by revealing their pasts in a series of flashbacks. The crew, led by the indomitable Captain Kinross (Coward himself), becomes more than just a cog in a massive wartime machine, but actual human beings, making for a film that earns the patriotic uplift it serves up.

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, In Which We Serve looks outstanding here, only dropping in quality for a few inserts of stock footage. The silvery black-and-white imagery is equally sharp and detailed in battle scenes and dialogue two-shots, and the lack of damage is extraordinary. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack handles the chaotic battle noise flatly but adequately and dialogue is clean throughout.

Extras on this disc include a new interview with Coward scholar Barry Day — he contributes one such interview to each disc in the set — who speaks extensively and knowledgeably about Coward and Lean, a 2000 retrospective making-of on the film, an audio recording from 1969 of a conversation between Coward and Richard Attenborough, who made his screen debut in the film, and a trailer.

This Happy Breed (1944)
A richly textured domestic drama, This Happy Breed shows Lean already becoming more confident in his directorial skills and weaving tales of love, friendship and heartbreak together in a suburban London home between WWI and WWII. Robert Newton and Celia Johnson star as Frank and Ethel Gibbons, a couple settling into post-war life with their three children, and the inner strength they’ll need in the ensuing 20 years.

Coward’s characterizations and the film’s plot turns of marriages, births and deaths could be rather slight on their own, but Lean opens up the staginess of the material brilliantly while still keeping many of the events confined within the middle-class home. Graceful, understated camera movements and a keen sense of pausing and pacing elevate much of the film and occasionally helps establish an emotional tenor that approaches the level of the ultimate domestic master, Yasujiro Ozu. A scene in which Newton and Johnson receive terrible news is exquisitely blocked and shot, and evokes real sorrow rather than contrived melodrama.

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, This Happy Breed features another impeccable transfer. Lean’s first color film saw him using the Technicolor stock in some unexpected ways, and the image here shows off the muted, nearly pallid look perfectly. Colors are stable and the images film-like, with a healthy level of grain and little to no damage. Uncompressed mono audio suits the dialogue-heavy film just fine.

Supplements features an interview with Day and a 2010 interview with cinematographer Ronald Neame, who would go on to become an accomplished director of his own, shortly before his death at age 99. Several trailers are also included.

Blithe Spirit (1945)
Coward’s trademark buoyant humor can be found around the edges of the other films in the set, but here, it’s the main event. Rex Harrison stars as Charles Condomine, a writer who invites a medium (a scene-stealing Margaret Rutherford) to dinner with friends, hoping to mine material for a fantasy novel. His condescending skepticism is laid to rest when the medium actually summons his deceased former wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), setting him up for an uncomfortable situation with current wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings).

Harrison’s relaxed comedic charm pairs nicely with the material, which is consistently amusing but wholly insubstantial. Here, Lean seems less interested in dispatching with the material’s inherent staginess; despite a number of location changes not specified in the play, the production is rather inert as a piece of cinema. Still, it’s hard to resist the charm and not to appreciate the wholly blithe way it approaches its darkly comedic subject matter.

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Blithe Spirit is another Technicolor high-def beauty. The film stock’s inherent unreality is perfect for a fantasy like this, and the saturated colors are stable and gorgeous here. The Oscar-winning special effects and the makeup have also aged rather well, and even Hammond’s head-to-toe green makeup looks good. Uncompressed mono audio is free from background hiss and presents dialogue cleanly.

Bonus features on this disc include another interview with Day, a 1992 episode of British series The Southbank Show about Coward’s life and career, and the film’s trailer.

Brief Encounter (1945)
The undisputed masterpiece of the set (and the only film here which Criterion had previously released on DVD, all the way back in 2000), Lean’s adaptation of Coward’s play Still Life is haunting and heartbreaking every time. Celia Johnson stars as housewife Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard stars as Dr. Alec Harvey. When their paths cross in a train station, the seemingly happily married Laura begins to fall for the married doctor, and despite the relationship’s doomed inevitability, the pair draw closer and closer.

Brief Encounter is remarkable for the way it creates high emotion in mundane spaces. Laura and Alec’s romance is defined by polite, buttoned-down interaction in ordinary places — a train station café, a movie theater balcony, a public park — but Lean allows us the thrill and despair of a burgeoning forbidden romance not beholden to its surroundings. The noir-like photography in the shadowy halls of the train station is undeniably evocative, but it’s the film’s peek into Laura’s tumultuous interior life (her frequent narration — an imaginary confession to her oblivious husband — is no lazy narrative engine but the film’s vulnerable core) and Johnson’s large, sad eyes that make the film unforgettable.

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Brief Encounter gets a marked improvement from the original Criterion DVD here. Blacks are deeper, details are better defined and there are no pesky compression artifacts in the way of a glorious film-like texture. The uncompressed mono audio serves both the dialogue and the Rachmaninoff score well.

Carried over from the old DVD release is an audio commentary from historian Bruce Eder, originally recorded for the laserdisc edition. New extras include another Day interview, a 2000 making-of, a 1971 TV documentary featuring extensive interview footage with Lean and the film’s trailer.

Packaged together with the box set is a 45-page booklet with a number of essays: Ian Christie on the Lean/Coward partnership, Terrence Rafferty on In Which We Serve, Farran Smith Nehme (aka the Self-Styled Siren) on This Happy Breed, Geoffrey O’Brien on Blithe Spirit and an adapted excerpt from Kevin Brownlow’s Lean biography that deals with Brief Encounter.

Dusty Somers

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