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Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger review - the Archers up close | reviews, news & interviews

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger review - the Archers up close

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger review - the Archers up close

Adoring tribute by Martin Scorsese to British filmmaking legends

Pressburger (in glasses), Powell (gripping tripod), and crew filming '49th Parallel" (1941)Altitude Films

This long, fascinating documentary was apparently intended as the centrepiece of last autumn’s BFI celebration of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But Made in England was delayed while Martin Scorsese (executive producer, presenter, and narrator) and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell’s widow, who also gets a credit as an executive producer) put the finishing touches on Killers of the Flower Moon

It’s a shame in some ways that the expectation of screening Made in England meant that the BFI season didn’t include the excellent BBC Arena (1981) and equally admirable South Bank Show (1985), which profiled the filmmakers while they were still alive, but both documentaries can be found on YouTube (at least for now). David Hinton, who directed that South Bank Show, is also at the helm here and has done a meticulous job chronicling the life and times of Britain’s greatest filmmaking collaboration. (Pictured below: Powell, pointing, directs David Niven and Marius Goring in A Matter of Life and Death, filmed at Denham Studios)

Director Michael Powell started off as a runner in silent films, working briefly as a stills photographer for Alfred Hitchcock before directing a series of low-budget films himself. The Anglo-Hungarian producer Alexander Korda put Powell together with Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian who had been working as a screenwriter in Berlin before the Nazis made life impossible for Jewish creatives.

Together they made a series of wonderfully complex features, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944) during World War II, that while inspiring patriotism never descended into jingoistic propaganda. As the Archers, their films included such classics as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948).

Hinton weaves together lengthy high-quality clips, along with archival interviews and footage of Powell and Pressburger at work and with their families. Scorsese is omnipresent in Made in England and makes no bones about being their biggest American fan. He describes his early encounter with their movies as a sickly child, first watching bowdlerised, black and white versions on cable TV.

These repeat viewings gave the future director an education in the language of film, particularly in the emotional impact of music and colour and Scorsese details how Powell's use of the colour red influenced his own work, particularly in Mean Streets. Along with fellow admirer Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese helped rehabilitate Powell who had fallen out of fashion with critics and audience after Peeping Tom (1960). Scorsese was responsible not only for introducing Powell to his future wife, Thelma Schoonmaker, but also for ensuring, alongside the BBC and BFI, that those Archers’ feature films that had fallen into disrepair were lovingly restored. 

For Powell and Pressburger obsessives (like myself), Made in England seems at times a little bit too focused on  how Scorsese’s adoration led to the resurrection of forgotten geniuses. But The Archers were never wholly abandoned in the UK. The critic and writer Raymond Durgnat was arguing their cause in the mid Sixties in his wonderful collection of film essays, A Mirror for England. And curators Ian Christie and Clyde Jeavons of the BFI don’t get the full credit they deserve for keeping the flame alive since programming the National Film Theatre's 1978 Powell and Pressburger retrospective and starting the restoration process. 

But there’s no denying that Scorsese (pictured below with Michael Powell) is a charismatic, insightful narrator. And no other figure would have been able to get funding for Made in England, a 133-minute tribute to filmmaking. The fact that the documentary will be shown in all its glory on cinema screens in an era when BBC Arts has abandoned any semblance of in-depth coverage of film culture is miraculous. It's been snapped up by MUBI, so will be available for streaming in due course.

Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell in 1981Made in England is at its best when it concentrates on the collaboration not only between Powell and Pressburger but also with the team of superb craftspeople – including directors of photography and set designers ­– with whom they surrounded themselves.The detailed accounts of music scoring, art direction, and Powell’s ambition of creating The Red Shoes as a 'composed film'  (the very opposite of naturalism) makes for a riveting sequence. 

There are lovely extracts from home movies as well as on-set footage that give insights into the Archers' production process. The archival research by Jamie Muir on this documentary is outstanding; the quality of all the material screened is as good as it will ever be. We also get insights into the differences that saw Powell and Pressburger drift apart and pursue separate paths while remaining friends. Altogether Made in England is a rare treat for cinephiles. 

 

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