Noel Coward was one of the true Renaissance men of the 20th century: he was a playwright, an actor, a director, a producer, a composer and lyricist responsible for some of the wittiest and most famous stage works of his day. In 1942, he decided to co-direct a film with David Lean and went on to make three more movies with Lean serving as the sole director. These marvelous movies In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter have been collected in a four disc set entitled David Lean Directs Noel Coward. With the year only being three months old, it will inevitably be one of the most outstanding Blu-ray packages to come our way during 2012.
David Lean Directs Noel Coward (Blu-ray)
In Which We Serve/This Happy Breed/Blithe Spirit/Brief Encounter
Directed by David Lean
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 114/111/96/86 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 99.95
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Review Date: March 20, 2012
In Which We Serve – 5/5
When the H.M.S. Torrin is hit by a German bomb during the second year of World War II, the surviving sailors clinging to a life raft, among them Captain ‘D’ (Noel Coward), Shorty Blake (John Mills), Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles), Flags (Michael Wilding), and a young stoker (Richard Attenborough), remember pleasanter times with their wives and families both before the war and during various leaves they had earned. Their beloved destroyer may be finished, but the fighting spirit within all of the men lives on.
Though it was a great propaganda tool of the time, the film now exists as a beautifully constructed patchwork quilt of stories giving a handful of men from various social classes their own narratives in which characterizations become key. By film’s end, there won’t be a dry eye in the house as the viewer grows attached to every one of them through their good times and bad, through weddings and funerals, and through special days shared either on the boat or back home with their loved ones. Before the film’s release, Coward underwent a great deal of scorn for deigning to play a military man instead of one of his usual sophisticates. He surprised them all by turning in a very clipped and polished performance, completely believable as a man who can motivate others to be at their best in critical moments. He also, of course, wrote the screenplay, produced the film, wrote its background music, and co-directed with David Lean (though Lean was almost completely in charge behind the camera while Noel worked with the actors). The film offered wonderful opportunities to the budding careers of John Mills, Michael Wilding, and Richard Attenborough, and Coward didn’t neglect the family at home with domestic scenes (especially those with Celia Johnson playing Coward’s wife and Kay Walsh as Mills’ new bride) adding greatly to the film’s poignancy and providing a complete view of the effects of war on every individual, not just the men doing the fighting and dying.
This Happy Breed – 4/5
The film captures twenty years in the life of the middle class Gibbons family from the end of World War I around 1919 until near the outbreak of the second war in 1939. Father Frank (Robert Newton) is an easy-going, thoughtful, and simple man who enjoys having a nip every once in a while and tending his garden on the weekends. Long-suffering wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) endures her children (Kay Walsh, Eileen Erskine, John Blythe) dallying with socialism, the roaring twenties, and extramarital affairs while next door neighbor Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway) remains lifelong buddies with Frank and Bob’s son Billy (John Mills) carries a torch for Quennie Gibbons (Kay Walsh) into naval service even though she aspires to break free of the middle class and be part of high society.
Noel Coward’s slice-of-life family drama is filled with the minutia of everyday life from petty squabbles between in-laws to the marriages, births, and deaths that are a part of most middle class family life. Though the twenty years between the two world wars saw both prosperous and meager times, the film doesn’t dwell on the depression, the general strike, or the gearing up for another war. Instead, Coward’s play and Lean’s direction concentrate on the more mundane aspects of life that are important in the moment but may not be of everlasting import to the universe. Lean’s direction is much more mobile than in the previous film with lots of pans and dolly shots used for emphasis. The performances are splendid. Celia Johnson’s world-weary matriarch is a titanic performance of great but restrained emotional depth, and Kay Walsh’s dissatisfied Quennie a quagmire of longings and stubborn refusal to compromise. Robert Newton’s usually brusque on-screen manner is greatly tempered here into a thoughtful, effective, and respectful father. As the three neighborhood boys who grow up together John Mills, John Blythe, and Guy Verney (who plays budding communist Sam) make a lively trio. The bickering mother-in-law Mrs. Flint of Amy Veness and the spinsterish Aunt Sylvia of Alison Leggatt add lots of merriment as they argue and grumble through the decades.
Blithe Spirit – 4/5
In doing research for a mystery novel about mediums that he’s writing, author Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites a group of friends to a séance at his home presided over by the eccentric Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford). Though she isn’t aware of it at the time, Arcati is successful in bringing forth the spirit of Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond), an apparition that only he can see. Elvira is none too pleased that Charles has remarried and isn’t especially fond of his wife of five years Ruth (Constance Cummings), so she decides to hang around to distract Charles and infuriate Ruth. Before long, Ruth is willing to do anything to rid the household of Elvira, even to the point of revisiting Madame Arcati and asking for her help in banishing the spirit.
David Lean’s direction of Coward’s wildly successful play is pretty much strictly by the numbers. He doesn’t appear to have much affinity for the material, and though the actors are expert and the writing top notch in Coward’s most urbane style, the film is entertaining but doesn’t transcend its stage origins in the way that This Happy Breed did. The special effects aren’t overdone or gimmicky in their use but much more sensibly and practically applied (the film won an Oscar for its special effects work). Though all three leads handle their roles well (which modern audiences may find a bit too brittle and cold), the picture gets purloined by that grandest of scene stealers Margaret Rutherford. With the character’s natural flamboyance and Miss Rutherford’s own dotty personality, you’ve got a perfect meeting-of-the-minds in terms of casting (she originated the role on stage), and the performance is exceptionally funny without letting the zaniness get too out of hand.
Brief Encounter – 5/5
Middle class housewife and mother Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) meets married doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a railway station refreshment room during one of her weekly shopping trips, and over the course of a few weekly meetings falls deeply in love with him, a feeling which is returned in kind. The two know it’s wrong and feel guilt over their as yet un-acted-upon emotions, but that doesn’t stop the feelings from becoming almost too much for each of them to bear.
Imagine a romantic drama today where people keep their clothes on and express their love only in tender embraces, soft-spoken endearments, and a few passionate kisses. And yet, Brief Encounter trumps all of the racier, more extroverted heated melodramas with its attention to responsible albeit passionate adults acting with restraint and respect for one another and for each other’s marriages. The script was adapted from Coward’s one act play Still Life and fleshed out by the other members of Cineguild (David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havlock-Allan who shared the Oscar nomination for their screenplay), and it’s by far the most mature and reverential look at an adult love affair ever committed to film. Lean’s direction focuses on lots of aching, affecting close-ups (almost from its first moments, the mixed looks of our protagonists of amorous depth but utter misery drips with poignancy) with odd camera angles and yet spectacular attention to detail (Laura’s fantasies on the life they might have shared, an idyllic afternoon in a rowboat) captures one’s attention and holds it throughout eighty-six breathless minutes.
And the cast is priceless. It’s really Celia Johnson’s movie from beginning to end. She narrates the flashbacks between the bookended scenes of the lovers’ final parting, so she must pantomime much of her performance while the voiceover provides commentary, one of the most difficult styles of acting and one in which she is triumphant. (Little wonder she won the New York Critics’ Best Actress award for the film). Trevor Howard offers a completely natural and ebullient performance representing a decent man trapped in this impossible situation with few or no options. And to lighten the tone of the piece there’s a parallel flirtation going on between railway ticket collector Albert played by Stanley Holloway and the faux-genteel counter clerk Myrtle played by Joyce Carey, both simply delightful in the film and an able counterpoint to the earnest, heartbreaking emotions transpiring between the two leads. Cyril Raymond as Laura’s sincere if dull husband Fred gets the final speech and induces a new round of tears with what he has to say.
In Which We Serve – 4.5/5
All of the films have been presented in their theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and are offered in 1080p using the AVC codec. This film has never looked so good on home video with a near-immaculate image that often seems as if it were filmed yesterday. Only some war footage incorporated into the finished product looks a bit ill-matched to the studio shot scenes. Otherwise, the grayscale is magnificently reproduced with very good black levels and pure whites. Sharpness is exemplary throughout. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
This Happy Breed – 4.5/5
The beautiful Technicolor photography was carefully timed to de-emphasize boisterous hues or uncontrollable brightness giving the film a lived-in look that’s quite appropriate for the storytelling. Still, there’s no denying that when bright color is called for (a soldiers’ parade, the fiery red plumes of the guards on duty during the funeral procession for King George), the transfer delivers brilliantly. There are only minor color fluctuations in skin tones late in the film; otherwise color consistency is excellent. Sharpness is superb throughout, and there is plenty of detail to be seen, especially in the careworn faces of the women who seem to shoulder much of the emotional burdens for the family. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
Blithe Spirit – 5/5
The Technicolor reproduction here is stunning in its clarity and richness of hues without ever going too far in terms of saturation levels. Sharpness is also exquisite where one can clearly see folds in Elvira’s ghostly gown and lots of details in faces and hair. Black levels are wonderfully rich and deep. For a film of this age, this one’s a real stunner. The movie has been divided into 9 chapters.
Brief Encounter – 5/5
The grayscale rendering of the film is perfection with deep blacks and crisp whites and with strong contrast which makes the images almost shimmer. Sharpness is superb with lots of details to be seen in faces and clothes and no problems with moiré or aliasing even with the tweeds and herringbone coats which predominate. Joyce’s reverie about the happy life she and Alec might have had together is filmed softer and grainier than the rest of the film which the transfer faithfully reproduces. The movie has been divided into 9 chapters.
All films – 4/5
All of the films have been given a PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix. The dialogue has been marvelously well recorded and is completely audible throughout all of the movies. Some of the background music both from Coward’s score and patriotic music of the era might not have great fidelity or much on the low end, but it represents about the best a soundtrack of this era could sound for the first two films. The scores of Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter are spritely in the case of the former and immersive and emotional in the case of the latter which features the rapturous Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 as its musical motif throughout. There are no age-related artifacts like crackle, hiss, or pops to mar the listening experience on the first three films and just a touch of attenuated hiss heard on Brief Encounter, but otherwise its fidelity is the best of the bunch.
In Which We Serve
Noel Coward expert Barry Day offers a video interview on the great man giving a brief biography of his stage and screen career and describing some of the more memorable aspects about the making of the movie. It runs 16 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
“A Profile of In Which We Serve” is a documentary produced in 2000 about the making of the movie featuring reminiscences from cinematographer Ronald Neame, actor John Mills, the daughter of Celia Johnson, and Coward expert Sheridan Morley. This runs for 24 ½ minutes in 1080i.
London’s National Film Theater hosted a discussion between Noel Coward and Richard Attenborough in 1969 which was tape recorded and is offered here in an audio replay lasting 65 minutes. The large audience in attendance was also offered the opportunity to ask questions of Coward leading to some lively and very amusing responses.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 1 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
This Happy Breed
All of the bonus material is presented in 1080p.
Barry Day’s video interview offers much interesting background information on the making of the movie from casting through changes from the play to the film version and a discussion of Lean’s evolution as a director with this movie. It runs 15 minutes.
The Golden Age is a 44-minute video interview with cinematographer-producer-director Ronald Neame in which he discusses his work on all of the films in this set, stories about star Robert Newton’s difficulties, the opening up of the plays for the screen, and his moving into the role of producer for the Lean-directed Great Expectations.
There are two trailers: the original theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes while the re-release trailer runs 2 ¼ minutes.
Barry Day offers a video critique of the film which he clearly finds the weakest of the quartet in this package. Offering excellent comparisons to the stage versus film versions of the piece and some backstage anecdotes on casting and production, this 11 ¼-minute overview makes a fine supplement to the movie. It’s in 1080p
A 1992 edition of The Southbank Show which offered a revealing biography of Noel Coward is offered here in 1080i. Along with lots of interviews with Coward later in his life, there are excerpts from his television special with Mary Martin called Together with Music along with staged scenes from his plays The Vortex, Design for Living, The Astonished Heart, Present Laughter, and Song at Twilight. Among famous faces who have memories to share are Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, John Mills, Daniel Massey, Graham Payn, John Lahr, and John Osbourne. It runs 50 ¾ minutes.
The film’s theatrical trailer is in 1080p and runs for 2 ½ minutes.
The audio commentary is by Bruce Eder who recorded it for the laserdisc release of the movie. It’s another of his marvelous discussions of a film with brief but intelligent biographies of the principal cast, analysis of Lean’s techniques and the actors’ performances, and coincidentally even some discussion of the other three films that happen to be in this set. Fans of the movie will find this a must-listen.
Barry Day offers another video analysis in this 16 ¼-minute piece stressing the expert direction and performances and summing up the four Coward-Lean endeavors. It’s in 1080p.
“A Profile of Brief Encounter” was filmed in 2000 and features Coward biographer Sheridan Morley, Anthony Havlock-Allan, Ronald Neame, and others discussing the film’s merits and meanings. It runs 24 ½ minutes in 1080i.
“David Lean: A Self Portrait” is a 1971 documentary in which the director looks back over his career at highlights from his filmography including In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Breaking the Sound Barrier, Summertime and with particular attention to his blockbuster epics The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter. Among those commenting along with Lean are screenwriter Robert Bolt, producer Sam Spiegel, and cinematographer Freddie Young. It runs 58 ½ minutes in 1080p.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 3 minutes in 1080i.
The enclosed 45-page booklet contains cast and crew lists for each of the films, color and black and white stills from the movies, an article that presents an overview of the careers of Noel Coward and David Lean by film historian Ian Christie, and individual articles on each of the four films written by Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow.
Each of the Criterion Blu-rays in this set include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of the year’s most indispensable releases, David Lean Directs Noel Coward offers up reference or near-reference copies of four superb films and a bonus feature section that no fan of either Noel Coward or David Lean would want to be without. Highly recommended!