Few filmmakers in the history of cinema can rival the artistry and vision of David Lean, and few dramatists in the history of comedy can claim more cutting quips per capita than Noel Coward. Yet when the two teamed up in the early 1940s for a quartet of pictures, 'Lawrence of Arabia' was still two decades away, and the young Lean, a well-regarded editor, had yet to direct his first feature film. Coward, long established as a popular playwright and icon of sophistication and wit, gave Lean that opportunity, sharing the directorial reins with him on a rousing British wartime propaganda film, 'In Which We Serve.' The movie launched Lean's distinguished career and spawned a fruitful - albeit brief - partnership with Coward that allowed the fledgling director to hone his skills and develop his distinctive style.
With the exception of the haunting romantic drama, 'Brief Encounter,' the Lean-Coward collaborations are relatively minor, workmanlike films that can't compete with the scope and artistry of the later Lean epics, but they still hold up well and allow us to examine the developing talents of a cinematic genius coupled with Coward's unique flair for inventive storytelling, lyrical dialogue, and provocative themes. It's quite a marriage, and the Criterion Collection honors it with a classy four-disc box set celebrating these two creative giants and their potent gifts. The included films - 'In Which We Serve' (1942), 'This Happy Breed' (1944), 'Blithe Spirit' (1945), and 'Brief Encounter' (1945) - run the gamut of genre and emotion, encompassing war, devotion, family, romance, comedy, and tragedy. Yet the common thread they share is a vital sense of humanity, thanks to vivid, dimensional characters who express universal feelings in a literate, forthright manner.
These may not be the most well-known titles in Lean's astoundingly rich film canon, but they are undeniable classics, and it's an inspired move by Criterion to package them all together, so movie buffs can analyze and cherish their artistry and impact. They also paint a portrait of Britain's stiff upper lip society during the stressful World War II years when English citizens showed true grit, Herculean stamina, and enviable courage, while maintaining their sense of humor and well-being. As a snapshot of a finite time period and a culture in crisis, these four films remain unrivaled in their cohesiveness, painting a portrait of Great Britain from the inside out, and their historical significance cannot be underestimated or undervalued.
The set kicks off with one of the finest, yet perhaps most underrated, World War II films of all time. 'In Which We Serve' (1942) isn't as flashy and melodramatic as some of its better known Hollywood counterparts, but it's so meticulously constructed and brilliantly executed both in front of and behind the camera, providing a quiet yet probing look at the courage, determination, and strength of the British Navy and the loyal women the sailors left behind, that it almost makes us forget the blatant propaganda. "This is the story of a ship," we are succinctly and soberly told in the movie's opening frames, and yes, during the first several minutes we see the HMS Torrin being built, launched, and ultimately destroyed by German bombs. A handful of crew survive, and as they cling to a lifeboat awaiting rescue (or death), they reflect on their tenure aboard the destroyer and their lives on English soil. Coward, who produced, co-directed, penned the screenplay, and even wrote the music score for the film, also stars as the ship's stoic commander; a young John Mills plays a spirited ordinary seaman from a modest background; and Bernard Miles portrays a shy, upstanding officer. Coward cast the always lovely Celia Johnson (in her film debut) as his supportive wife, and Kay Walsh (Lean's wife at the time) is especially charming as Mills' wide-eyed bride.
More of a multiple character study than a dramatic narrative and filmed in the style of a pseudo-documentary, 'In Which We Serve' penetrates because of the engaging personalities who populate the story. As we witness the seamen's camaraderie and teamwork, duties and missions, and see how each behaves in crisis and while on leave, an affinity develops and the simple portraits begin to resonate. These ordinary folk perform mundane tasks and live lives similar to our own, and the film's identifiable nature makes the resulting emotion more palpable and affecting. Like the citizens it profiles, 'In Which We Serve' is stout-hearted and resolute, but beneath the admirable facade lies a heart as big as its country's populace. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
After focusing so intently on men at war, Lean and Coward next turned their attention to the British homefront with an adaptation of Coward's 1939 play, 'This Happy Breed' (1944). Another understated, slice-of-life drama, this domestic chronicle examines the everyday existence of the working class Gibbons family during the between-the-war years of 1919 through 1939. Relationship dynamics, love affairs, a sprinkling of strife, plenty of human comedy, and noteworthy historical events all find their way into the film, which favors character development over plot devices. The series of vignettes at times feels a little choppy, but ends up making a cohesive whole that's emotionally fulfilling, thanks to a host of beautifully executed small moments.
Robert Newton and Celia Johnson superbly portray the beleaguered father and mother coping with three very different and challenging children, and they are ably supported by John Mills, Stanley Holloway, and Kay Walsh, all of whom lend an authentic air to the proceedings. 'This Happy Breed' is the first film for which Lean received sole directorial credit, and though his technique is largely rudimentary, a few glimmers of future greatness are on display here. Ronald Neame (who also photographed 'In Which We Serve' and the following year's 'Blithe Spirit,' and would later become an excellent director in his own right) handles the Technicolor cinematography well, which lends an extra layer of intimacy to the proceedings. Though 'This Happy Breed' entertains and touches the heart on its first viewing, closer examination is required to savor the abundant nuances that comprise this deceptively fine film. Rating: 4 stars.
'Blithe Spirit' (1945), a mildly successful adaptation of Coward's own 1941 hit play, is the only film in this collection to showcase Coward's peerless wit and uncanny ability to lampoon upper class mores and foibles. Though more sedate in tone than the spritely stage play, the script (co-adapted by Lean and fashioned without Coward's input) maintains enough of the original's dry-as-a-martini zingers and impeccable sense of sophistication to tickle our fancy, but the humor is rarely uproarious. Supernatural overtones, however, put a unique spin on the tried-and-true love triangle that forms the story's crux. Charles (a young and very thin Rex Harrison) is a stuffy, smug country gentleman who finds his rather dull second marriage to the pretty yet passionless Ruth (Constance Cummings) disrupted and then enlivened by the unexpected appearance of the ghost of his first spouse, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Elvira relishes her ability to taunt her former husband and wreak havoc on his new life and wife, all while shamelessly reigniting old flames and making him rue her untimely demise. A deliciously over-the-top Margaret Rutherford portrays the eccentric medium who summons Elvira's restless spirit, and she unabashedly steals the show.
Like most drawing room comedies and Coward's farces in particular, 'Blithe Spirit' is largely composed of withering put-downs and sarcastic barbs delivered with plenty of zest by the cast. Yet there's a nefarious darkness to these proceedings that sets the story apart from more generic marital romps. The film version also strays from its theatrical original by tacking on a new ending, thanks to overzealous censors who deemed an innocent dalliance with the ghost of one's dead spouse tantamount to infidelity, and thus a reprehensible practice demanding retribution. Though a bit contrived, the revamped conclusion at least gives the egomaniacal - and at times insufferable - Charles a degree of comeuppance, and the put-upon women in his life some overdue satisfaction.
Coward reportedly loathed the film version of 'Blithe Spirit,' boldly telling Lean after viewing it for the first time, "You've fucked up the best thing I ever wrote!" Harrison later jumped on the band wagon, bemoaning Lean's humorless nature and blaming it for the picture's deficiencies. Nevertheless, 'Blithe Spirit' scored big with audiences, and remains the most profitable film adaptation of any of Coward's plays. Today, it's a pleasant enough diversion; dated, but enjoyable, and noteworthy for its rapier sharp repartee and the delightfully daffy performance of Rutherford. Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
By far the best known - and most beloved - film in this collection is the romantic and heartbreaking 'Brief Encounter' (1945), the culmination of the Coward-Lean partnership and a beautiful tale distinguished by an exquisite script (adapted from a Coward play) and the graceful artistry that would hereafter become a Lean staple. Intimate, thoughtful, yet filled with underlying passion, 'Brief Encounter' draws its substantial power from an understated tone and perfectly modulated performances as it tells the tale of two upstanding, moral people (both married) who meet by chance in the tea room of a railway station, develop a casual rapport, and soon find themselves swept up in an unexpected, unwanted, and doomed affair. Rarely has the spiritual side of love been depicted with such tenderness and insight, and rarely has a film so successfully exuded the debilitating ache of unfulfilled passion.
Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson play the illicit lovers who share stolen, infrequent moments in a variety of dreary settings, and they are both magnificent. Johnson, as the suburban wife who's caught off guard by her burgeoning attraction to a man she barely knows, won the prestigious New York Film Critics award for her natural, restrained performance, and was also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Howard, in his first leading role, perfectly complements her, displaying a mix of quiet strength and delicate sensitivity that's utterly believable.
Despite its age and the ever evolving rules of a fickle society, 'Brief Encounter' remains timeless, because it focuses on two mature people who handle a devastating situation in a mature manner, making difficult choices for the right reasons and solving problems like adults. It's not a cheerful film, but the emotional response it evokes makes it resonate. Lean, who received his first Best Director Oscar nomination for the movie, as well as sharing a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, employs just enough technique to enhance the story and not distract from it. It's his first virtuoso performance (augmented by the swelling strains of Rachmaninoff's 'Piano Concerto #2,' which comprises the film's score), setting the stage for the following year's 'Great Expectations' and all the classic epics to come. Rating: 5 stars.
Without Coward, Lean might never have achieved his professional destiny, and without Lean, Coward might never have seen his works so fully and artistically realized. Their brief partnership served both men well, and gave the public four varied films of exceptional quality that continue to stand the test of time. This set honors these two creative giants and allows movie lovers the chance to cherish and cheer their very notable accomplishments.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'David Lean Directs Noel Coward' arrives packaged in an attractive box set. Inside, each film is tucked into its own finely designed cardboard case, trimmed with classy photos. There's also a 44-page booklet, printed on glossy paper, with essays on the genesis of the Lean-Coward collaboration and in-depth examinations of each of the four films. The information and analysis presented is first-rate, providing essential insights into this productive and successful partnership. There are also cast and crew lists, notes about the respective transfers, and several rare stills.
Video codec for all discs is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is uncompressed mono. When the discs are inserted into the player, the full-motion menus with music immediately pop up; no promos or previews precede them.
All these films possess exceptionally fine transfers, thanks largely to, according to the liner notes, "an ambitious one-million-pound program" by the BFI National Archive from 2006 to 2008 to restore the first 10 feature films directed by Lean in time for the centenary of his birth. The fruits of these labors appear even more pronounced in high definition, and any cinephile worth his or her salt will be bowled over by the look of these vintage classics, the brilliance of which equals the brilliance of Lean himself.
'In Which We Serve'
Mastered in 4K resolution from "the original nitrate negative and sections of the nitrate fine-grain master," the oldest film in this collection looks spectacular on Blu-ray, sporting gorgeous clarity and contrast. A modicum of grain maintains the essence of celluloid, but it's balanced by a seductive silkiness that makes the image pop. Terrific gray scale variance brings out plenty of bold detail, and deep, luxurious black levels lend the picture presence and weight. Close-ups show off facial features well, with beads of sweat and flecks of grime easily visible, and the ocean water, whether shimmering or polluted with muck, is marvelously rendered. A bit of crush intrudes during nocturnal sequences and some occasional softness afflicts isolated shots, but those are minor quibbles, especially when balanced against the often dazzling sharpness of this first-class effort. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
'This Happy Breed'
Lean's first Technicolor effort makes a stunning transition to Blu-ray. The crystal clear, beautifully contrasted image (drawn from the restoration internegative, which was produced from the original YCM negatives) exhibits just the right amount of grain to lend the domestic interiors a sense of warmth and the rest of the film a nostalgic aura. Though the color palette is intentionally drab to reflect the working class setting, the hues of three-strip Technicolor still possess a sheen and depth that's glorious to behold. Exteriors brim with vibrancy, background elements are crisp, and close-ups exhibit plenty of fine detail. Strong black levels add appropriate balance, and fleshtones look true and natural. Best of all, the source material is blemish-free and shows no sign of digital imperfections or enhancements. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
The other Technicolor offering in the set comes with high expectations, and 'Blithe Spirit' delivers on almost all counts. Created from the restoration negative, which was produced from the original YCM negatives, the transfer features gorgeous color that's perfectly timed and well saturated, lending the palette a natural yet vibrant look. Harrison's blue robe and the blue interiors of the demi-tasse cups, Rutherford's red velvet dress and Elvira's red lipstick and nails all possess plenty of pizzazz and a marvelous sense of texture. Clarity and contrast are excellent, too, with striking details visible in the paintings on the wall, dancing flames in the fireplace, the reflection in the crystal ball, and peas on a dinner plate. Black levels are rich and inky, whites are solid, and fleshtones remain stable and true to life. Even the special effects blend seamlessly into the film's fabric, though some rear projection work is rather noticeable. A fine grain structure produces a cozy film-like feel, close-ups are lovely, and only a few stray specks or marks sully the pristine source material. There's really nothing like three-strip Technicolor, and this transfer celebrates its lushness and luster. Rating: 4 stars.
The flagship film in this collection also receives the red-carpet treatment with regard to its transfer. According to the liner notes, "the new restoration was created in 4K resolution...from the best surviving duplicate safety negatives." Superior gray scale variance brings a wonderful sense of depth to the image, and the deep blacks convey a sense of hopelessness and foreboding. Once again, contrast and clarity are top-notch, patterns are rock solid and resist shimmering, and light grain provides the picture with additional texture. Close-ups are sharp, shadow delineation is quite good, and background elements, especially in the tea room, are easy to discern. Dirt and debris have been meticulously removed, leaving a clean image that allows us to fully invest ourselves in this heartbreaking love story. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
Each film in this collection features an LPCM monaural soundtrack that has been restored from a sound print made from the original nitrate track negative, with the exception of 'Blithe Spirit,' whose restored monaural track came from a nitrate sound positive. The audio on all the films is remarkably free of hiss, pops, and crackles, thanks to plenty of clean-up, but some errant imperfections do remain. Due to the age of the respective tracks, there isn't a whole lot of depth or fidelity to the audio, although the score for 'Blithe Spirit' does possess a hint of a stereo feel at times, and the lushly romantic strains of Rachmaninoff's 'Piano Concerto #2,' which so beautifully complement the 'Brief Encounter' story, fill the room with symphonic elegance.
The bass on 'In Which We Serve' is rather weak, with exploding bombs sounding anemic, but otherwise the track is in good shape. Dialogue on all the films is clear and easy to comprehend, and the respective music scores possess a decent tone. All in all, the audio on this set can't hold a candle to the video, but it's clean and vibrant across the board and serves each film well. For 70-year-old motion pictures, we can't ask for anything more.
A marvelous array of high-quality supplements adorn this substantive collection. In addition to the 48-page booklet described above, a mixture of contemporary and vintage material enhances each of these classic films.
'In Which We Serve'
'This Happy Breed'
'David Lean Directs Noel Coward' is a spectacular set honoring two entertainment giants and produced with exceptional care by Criterion. Gorgeous restorations of a quartet of 1940s films highlight this captivating collection that represents British cinema at its finest. Almost seven decades after its initial release, 'Brief Encounter' remains a haunting and influential romantic drama, but its brilliance doesn't overshadow the equally affecting war drama, 'In Which We Serve,' the involving and perceptive family portrait, 'This Happy Breed,' and the delightful supernatural romp, 'Blithe Spirit.' All these films brim with impeccable craftsmanship, artistry, and an undeniable sense of purpose that reflects British society during one of its most difficult and transitional stages. They also allow us to fully appreciate Coward's immense creative gifts and the burgeoning talents of Lean, poised on the cusp of one of the greatest careers in film history. Housed in a handsome box and featuring a multitude of fine extras, as well as a beautifully designed 48-page booklet, 'David Lean Directs Noel Coward' deserves a spot on every film-lover's shelf and earns an extremely high recommendation.