Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A Life in Technicolor

Image Courtesy of Park Circus
At the risk of sacrilege, dare I suggest that the theatrical re-release of classic films is one of the great benefits of the digital revolution? I know, I know: I'd love original prints wherever possible too. But digital technology has made re-releases ever more affordable, as well as allowing absolutely immaculate restoration jobs. Over the last two years or so, I've seen the likes of Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis and Cria Cuervos for the first time on the big screen, and they've been extraordinary experiences. Of course, it also means stunning quality Blu-Ray releases: one can only praise Masters of Cinema, BFI and - for you lucky Americans - Criterion for their advances in this respect. But the draw of the cinema remains, for this writer anyway, irresistible. And for that reason I can now add the glorious Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to the list of crisp and beautiful D-Cinema experiences.

You probably know the story: the life of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), spanning from 1902 to the middle of the Second World War (when the film was made). He lives. He loves (Deborah Kerr playing different characters at specific stages of the film). He has a peculiar but fruitful friendship with German Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) after they end up dueling for various amusing diplomatic reasons. Curiously - spoilers!, although I feel the statute of limitation on spoilers has probably expired after seventy years - he doesn't actually die, which is an interesting decision given the fairly definitive title (a title the directors only slightly altered for the equally stunning A Matter of Life and Death a few years later). Nor is there any reference to a Colonel Blimp - the film instead just borrowing the name of a largely unconnected satirical comic strip. The title eccentricities are certainly curious, although let us not dwell on them.

The obvious joy of this re-release is the stunning technicolor cinematography. In glorious Academy Ratio, a blacked-out room on an unreasonably sunny day is certainly a great way to experience Colonel Blimp for the first time. From beautiful, intense long-takes through sweeping crane-shots and war-torn painted backgrounds, Blimp has lost none of its ability to leap off the screen. Indeed, the restoration job has made it sing even more - there's nary a cigarette burn to be seen. Directors / producers / writers Powell and Pressburger were indeed the kings of early colour cinema, and this must be amongst their crowning achievements.

The performances have also lost none of their power or expertise. Livesey undergoes an astoundingly well-realised transformation over the course of the film. Not only is the aging makeup pretty much seamless (almost putting to shame recent contenders like Benjamin Button) but the way he realises Wynne-Candy's tics and personality traits makes for a tour-de-force performance. Watching the dashing British fellow of the early chapters slowly morph into a moustachioed, rotund gentleman makes for truly great cinema and is utterly convincing. Even his accent and pronunciation shift with subtlety over the course of the movie. He's surrounded by talent, too. Walbrook's performance is the perfect mix of warmth and world weariness (emphasised during his moving speech as a new refugee to Britain), while Kerr charms in her three different roles.

Blimp has been described as the best film about Britishness. And that's certainly true. It's a film that's both willing to critique and celebrate the British attitude and way-of-life. Emerging victorious from WW1, a group of British gentlemen try to cheer up POW Theodor at dinner. Their intentions are good, but their outlook outdated and more than a little quaint. Cheery at times, but cynical when needed, Blimp is a multi-layered film that has lost little of its insight over the years. While there are certainly motivational and celebratory undertones (as well as a underlying anti-Nazism), this is also remarkably removed from the propaganda elements that defined many wartime films. It's willingness to humanise and contextualise German characters is particularly worthy of applause in hindsight.

Despite its technical majesty and thematic complexity, Colonel Blimp is ultimately worth praising as sheer dazzling entertainment. From the iconic, energetic prologue - 'War Begins at Midnight!' - to Candy's amusing sojourn to Berlin, Life and Death... constantly woos the audience with its breezy, enthusiastic tone. Matched with the more bittersweet elements - including poignant love stories devoid of easy resolutions - Powell and Pressburger crafted a film that threatens to become messy and contradictory, but it never, ever does. And at the centre is Clive Wynne-Candy, one of the cinema's most charismatic and charming protagonists. Seventy years on, his is still a life less ordinary, and worth 160 minutes of anyone's time.

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