The Movie Waffler New Release Review - MADE IN ENGLAND: THE FILMS OF POWELL AND PRESSBURGER | The Movie Waffler


Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger review
Martin Scorsese reflects on the films of the iconic duo.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: David Hinton

Featuring: Martin Scorsese

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger poster

When we think of British cinema today we tend to equate it with low budget productions capturing a drab, clouded over urban landscape in what might as well be monochrome. It's easy to forget there was a period from the 1940s to the early '60s that saw some of the most colourful cinematic spectacles ever realised emerge from that rain-sodden isle. From historical epics to Hammer horrors, British cinema went toe to toe with Hollywood when it came to colourful grandeur, and at the forefront was the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger is directed by David Hinton and "presented" by Martin Scorsese, but it's the Italian-American auteur who is the guiding force rather than the documentary's director. Far from an objective overview of its subject, the film is a personal reminiscence from Scorsese of both Powell, his cinematic hero, and Michael, his good friend. A more apt title might have been 'A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through the Films of Michael Powell', as despite its moniker it's very much focussed on Powell, devoting considerable time to the films he made without his most famous collaborator.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger review

Like all the best documentaries about filmmakers, Made in England goes through Powell's career film by film. Despite Scorsese's reverence for and personal relationship with Powell, he doesn't brush over the filmmaker's failures, which are admittedly few and far between. But for the most part this is a gushing and emotionally moving salute from one great to another.

Despite one half of the duo being a Hungarian immigrant, the films of Powell & Pressburger are as English as they come. In fact, you might argue that they're a lot less British than they are English. They represent a specific sort of English repression, but that emotional stagnation is contrasted by the expressionist visuals Powell deployed to convey his characters' psychology. You'll rarely hear a character in a Powell & Pressburger movie tell you what they're feeling, but you'll always be explicitly aware of their mental state because Powell shows you what his characters are feeling through colour, editing, lighting, camera movement, costume, production design and every other tool of cinema.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger review

Powell often used the colour red to convey such emotions, whether it be Kathleen Byron's lipstick in Black Narcissus or the titular ballet footwear of The Red Shoes. The addition of red changes and overwhelms characters, bringing out the emotions and desires they've withheld; even now a red dress is associated with a woman showing her daring side. The films of Powell make it fitting that the English flag is a combination of red and white, purity and passion in constant conflict. Scorsese admits to filling Mean Streets with red in tribute to Powell, only for his idol to tell him he used too much of the colour.

Even when Powell worked in monochrome, he shunned black and white morality. There's a sympathy for villains that often got him in trouble, none more so than Peeping Tom, which practically ended his career. Some of Powell and Pressburger's best films were conceived as wartime propaganda vessels, but the duo resolutely avoided politics and focussed instead on values. They dared to satirise the British military establishment with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, drawing Churchill's ire in the process, but while that film mocks a certain type of British tradition, it's filled with warmth for the man who embodies it. In A Matter of Life and Death they chose to represent Heaven in monochrome and reality in glorious colour, an embodiment of their unwavering belief in humanity in its darkest hours.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger review

Scorsese met Powell in the '70s when the director was on his knees. He never directed again but thanks to being made a director in residence at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios, he once again felt a part of cinema. For the rest of his life he was a mentor to Scorsese and a husband to editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is an executive producer on this documentary. Scorsese is keen to point out any moments of his own career where he borrowed from Powell, but the film's one misstep is an oddly placed montage of out of context clips from random Scorsese movies, and you can imagine Scorsese being embarrassed by such a wrong-footed tribute.

Along with Scorsese's guiding wisdom, there are wonderful archive clips, mosty from those fantastic cinephilia shows that were so prevalent on British TV prior to the the anti-intellectual rot that set in at the turn of the century. For over two hours this is a magical and moving tribute to a lost era of filmmaking and film appreciation. Powell claimed that when he first met Scorsese the American's passion for cinema meant he could feel the blood flow through his own veins. If you love the movies you'll have a similar feeling watching this doc.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger is in UK/ROI cinemas from May 10th.

2024 movie reviews