By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Anthony Asquith’s “A Cottage on Dartmoor,” Kino Video]
Poor British cinema no matter how you slice it, it just never gathered steam like other national cinemas (several of which have multiple peaking eras). Its “new wave” the post-Free Cinema “social realism” movement of the ’60s was never quite world-class; prior to that, only Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell were landmark voices, and Hitchcock, along with many or most of the first half-century’s best British directors, followed the money to Hollywood. In the last quarter century, there have been blips of brilliance, but only Ken Loach emerges as a pantheon figure. For such a prosperous, well-cultured and cosmopolitan nation, you’d have expected more from a century of cinema.
Perhaps Hollywood’s brain drain, for English-speaking artistes, was a major factor; so too might be Britain’s undemonstrative public character. Whatever the diagnosis, it has been difficult to, say, even name an English silent film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and this is why Anthony Asquith’s “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (1929), recently rediscovered and restored, comes as a legitimate revelation. Given my dire summary of Brit film history, it may not seem extraordinary to assess this tumultuous, restless, eye-popping masterpiece as, arguably, the greatest English film until “Brief Encounter” but that’s almost a 50-year period we’re talking about, and one that includes early Powell, “The 39 Steps,” “Pygmalion” (another Asquith film) and “In Which We Serve.”
A kind of modern-Gothic psycho-thriller that is astonishingly frank for its day, Asquith’s movie manifests what old-school movieheads have long said about silent-vs.-sound cinema that had sound come along a few years later, rather than in the silent-renaissance year of 1927, then film itself would’ve reached heights of expressive power it didn’t attain for years afterwards (if it ever has). One look at the ’27-’28 roster “Sunrise,” “Metropolis,” “Napoleon,” “October,” “Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,” “The Crowd,” “The Man Who Laughs,” “The End of St. Petersburg,” “The Wedding March,” “The Wind,” “Hindle Wakes” gives you pause. Here’s one way to consider the difference between what we had and what was lost: “A Cottage on Dartmoor” feels like a movie that doesn’t need sound, and that doesn’t lean upon the conventions of silent film (overacting, numerous intertitles, simplistic characterization, etc.). It begins with a prison break and a chase on the moors, but soon “wakes up” to life in a busy London salon, where a socially awkward barber (Uno Hemming) loves a manicurist (Norah Baring), who really has eyes for a goofy rich client (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). You’d think the scenario would careen down predictable avenues, but it doesn’t and neither do any of the three characters remain defined by our initial impressions.
In the meantime, Asquith pulls out the Expressionist-Murnovian-Eisensteinian-Hitchcockian stops POVs reflected within other reflections, arch shadow design, hypnotic use of Vermeerian light, sweaty off-kilter close-ups, skewed compositions, even instances of illustrative montage (cutting to what the characters are thinking or talking about as they talk or think about it) several years before Fritz Lang’s “M.” Even the second act’s throat-cutting climax, complete with the dazed razor-wielder absent-mindedly wiping his victim’s blood on his own face, has nothing on an amazing 13-minute set-piece in a movie theater, in which we never see the screen on one hand, it’s a smashing multiple-perspective satiric dig at the early talkies, where the orchestra relaxes with beer after the overture, and the audience relearns how to watch (and strain to listen to) movies. On the other, it’s a propulsive montage of viewers being menacingly watched and homicidal fantasies being shared. Perhaps most of all, the drama of “A Cottage on Dartmoor” crystallizes in the characterizations and the shockingly subtle acting, the most adroit and telling I’ve ever seen in a silent film. Imagine exalted ambivalence, in a medium dependent on the emphatic. British silent cinema may well have been unjustly maligned and ignored, as goes the argument in the new, supplementary BFI doc by David Thompson, “Silent Britain,” which also reveals that the language of narrative cinema was not in fact invented by Edwin S. Porter in 1903, but four years earlier by George Albert Smith, an Englishman.
Something of a new way forward, you could say, spills out of Kazuaki Kiriya’s “Casshern” (2004), one of the first “greenscreen” movies released in the same year as “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Able Edwards” and “Immortel (ad vitam),” all of them manufactured (as were “Sin City” and “300”) as live-action dramatics played out in front of optical greenscreens and then stage-dressed with all manner of high-flying digital poppycock. As a form, greenscreen movies are beautiful to look at but are often as lively as posed dioramas, and their stories and characters can be as flat as the comic-book pages from which they originated. Never released here, “Casshern” is the microgenre’s high-water mark its visuals are denser, its story (derived from an old Japanese TV series) is crazier and its emotional tone is truer than the competition’s. That said, the primary product on sale in Kiriya’s film is confabulated futuristic chaos like you’ve never seen before, not even in the looniest anime; the mecha-destruction visuals and action set-pieces are conceived, designed and edited like elaborate, tarnished, whiplash clockworks. The plot is classically Japanese a mad collision between “Akira”-style übermensch, genetic mutation, robot-war back story, and swoony heartbreak, plus an inexplicable stone lightning bolt but its “Blade Runner”-ish future is immersively realized, and the current of tumult and crisis is startling.
“A Cottage on Dartmoor”/”Silent Britain” (Kino) and “Casshern” (Paramount Home Video) are now available on DVD.