The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943)Adam & Matty's takes (starts at 38:38)
As always when revisiting a favorite, I was worried it wouldn't live up, especially for a film I've seen in the theater (with the screen two meters away from me at most, but still) and am rewatching at home. In this case, I wasn't worried I wouldn't like it, but there's something hard to define which makes a film something you love rather than something you like a lot, and I wasn't sure which way it would go.
The first thing that struck me is how entertaining a film this is. The first two acts (the "War starts at midnight" part and the Berlin flashback) are as fun as anything Hollywood was putting out at the time, with delightful wit and a very winning performance from Roger Livesey as the young Candy. It's a pretty bold move from Powell & Pressburger to move from the ridiculous Blimp character incredulously bellowing that "War starts at midnight !" to the young dashing hero of yesteryear. It's one of the film's main points really: to show Blimp as the avatar of the British Empire, which does make him obsolete in some ways (the Empire would not last a decade after this film) but also imbues the character with a certain sense of nostalgia, of a dignitiy and even a romanticism lost in the dark world of post-1914 Europe. That they transition from one to another in a beautiful tracking shot over the pool is the icing on the cake, because what really matters here is that they never let Blimp/Candy be too much one or the other. He's undeniably sympathetic, but he's never perfect, and Powell & Pressburger never let the film become a pure nostalgia fest. There is a fair bit of that in the first flashback, with characters talking about Sherlock Holmes and David Livingstone, but both the script and the direction undercut it. The duel is a nice example of that: the script highlight how pompous and preposterous it all is while the direction underlines how removed it is from current reality by pulling away and showing us this snowy Berlin as something out of a fairytale. And of course it's all tremendously entertaining too.
The second part of the flashback taking place in and after WWI, is a bit weaker but a very necessary transition, setting up the stakes of the WWII part. It's also a change of tone, perhaps not as striking as it would have been had the France part taken place in, say, early 1917, but still. Candy is shown as a bit of a hypocrit too, though Powell & Pressburger don't put too fine of a point on it. They're never telling you what to feel (well, I suppose they are with the Wolbrook character but that's a bit different), which is key, but it also lets you recontextualize some of the plot points about the Boer War earlier on (let's just say the British did not behave particularly nobly in that one). I have to get to the Deborah Kerr thing though, because this is the only thing that makes me feel slightly queasy about the film. It appears that Powell was madly in love with Kerr at the time, and that's all well and good, but it's a testament to Livesey's performance that Candy does't come off as a grade-A creep here.
That second part is also where Anton Wolbrook's character becomes much more important to the story, and I must admit that I had forgotten about his two scenes here, but they're excellent. The first one has more to do with the use of Schubert and the direction than his performance really, but his monologue in the train back home is an incredible scene, and apparently the biggest factor in making Churchil want to ban the film. Wolbrook is almost villainous in it, which is again incredibly bold given both the context (1943 Britain) and the fact that Powell & Pressburger are just minutes away from making him the most sympathetic character of the film. It also lets the viewer reflect on what's being said about the changing nature of the world in the early 20th century without forcing any particular feeling on you. Wolbrook is prescient in some ways, but does that make him smart and pragmatic, or pessimistic and weak ? It's very hard to say which way Powell & Pressburger stand here, and that's the greatest thing about this film. It's deeply humanistic (Wolbrook's refugee speech is so powerful) and melancholy but in a way that's open-ended, which is so remarkable for a film made while London was literally under German bombs.
So yeah, two great performances (I haven't talked about Livesey's versatility and sublety here), flawless direction and a complex script all wrapped in an film that's at once entertaining, deeply moving and stimulating to engage with. If only I wasn't so creeped out by the Deborah Kerr thing (in no small part due to the fact that the characters she plays keep dying offscreen
), I might call it perfect.9/10