Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Canterbury Tale

There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors.

Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today.

And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried.

And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.

The film of the week on television has to be Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale. It is on BBC2 on Tuesday, starting at 1 p.m.

As Mark Duguid writes on screenonline:

The film is structured as a mystery story, but its real purpose is to add a spiritual dimension to the propaganda message of earlier films like 49th Parallel (1941) and "...One of Our Aircraft is Missing" (1942). There are no Nazis in A Canterbury Tale and, although the war provides its backdrop, the focus is on identifying a distinctively moral and spiritual English identity, in direct opposition to the harsh material objectives of fascism.

The film offers a vision of an England with its spiritual roots in the countryside exemplified by the beauty of Kent - the county of Powell's birth - an England which its increasingly urban population have neglected for too long. Evoking Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the film charts the progress of a select band of modern pilgrims. As the trio of land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), American officer Bob (John Sweet) and British officer Peter (Dennis Price) converge on Canterbury Cathedral, each receives a 'blessing', bringing his or her most fervent wish to life. The film's peculiar power owes much to Eric Portman who, as the enigmatic Thomas Colpeper - local Justice of the Peace, prophet and one of Powell's many screen alter-egos - delivers an intense and complex performance, just as he had in 49th Parallel three years earlier.

There are links to all sorts of review and articles on The Powell & Pressburger Pages, but really I suggest you just tape it or watch it. It is an extraordinary film.

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