Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor prison. The guards look for him. They go to a cottage near by, where they believe he is headed to. Then, in one of the great transitions to a flashback, using intertitles as both a cut and spoken words, we are told what has happened. And what we are told is one of the swansongs of (British) silent cinema, one that keeps you hooked, and certainly one of my favourites.

Director Anthony Asquith's reputation has been defined by his sound films, seen too often as film versions of well-made plays, in particular those of Terence Rattigan. This is unfair for two reasons: the first is that the films themselves are sometimes quite good ("Pygmalion", "The Importance of Being Earnest", "The Browning Version"); and the second is that it neglects his four silent features. Recently, both "A Cottage on Dartmoor" and "Underground" have been restored by the BFI, made available on DVD (or will soon) and reassessed for the wonderful works that they are. Of course, “A Cottage on Dartmoor” is a dreadful title, which probably hasn't helped – suggesting too much an idyllic England and very little going on the screen. And what goes on the screen feels, to modern audiences anyway, more like Hitchcock than theatre. Asquith's use of effects, camera angles and photography, borrowing a bit from German expressionism, is both confident and original.

The film is full of wonderful little moments - the suggestion to see a talkie (oh, the irony...); the sequence at the cinema; the lost card that was supposed to come with the flowers; and above all the reality and regrets of relationships, in one of cinema's most honest moments - for once, we get to see what really goes on after the "happily ever after". Asquith's direction is certain but it also benefits from a great script and an astonishing trio of leads (one Swede, one British, one German), in particular Uno Henning (as the barber). I definitely think I'll try to see more of his work.

To finish, I should mention something about the actual screening (well, actually two things). One is that I saw this a few months ago, and the post is based on notes I did at the time: reality has been biting and time to blog has not been much. So if I don't make full justice to the film, is because I saw it over three months ago. The second thing, is that, like most silent film screenings, this one had a live piano accompaniment, this one by Stephen Horne, who provided one of the best accompaniments of a silent film I have had the chance to listen to and certainly enhanced my experience of the film.


Judy said...

Hi, Miguel, I saw this a little while back and agree with you that it is a powerful thriller which deserves to be better known. Happy New Year.

Miguel said...

Happy New Year to you too!