Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 1: Went the Day Well?

At the recent BFI Town Hall meeting, there was an audio-visual presentation about the BFI and its (valuable) contributions to British cinema. Part of this presentation featured what, with apologies to whomever put it together, might be the worst trailer I've ever seen (and I've seen more than a few!): a modern trailer advertising a re-release of this very film, Went the Day Well?

Watching the film again, I am agog that they managed to cock that trailer up quite so badly: I mean, this is a film stuffed full of good scenes, great character performances, some fun lines, and a fantastic central concept - what would a small (and quaint, naturally) English village do if undercover German troops invaded during WW2?

With a hook that strong, the film doesn't disappoint. Although lumbered with a rather clumsy flashback structure, this is harsh, rarely predictable, filmmaking - and I suppose I'd better signal [spoiler warning]... the home guard are massacred in a machine gun ambush, the post-mistress is bayoneted (though not before killing one of the German soldiers with a pepper pot and an axe, and attempting to raise the alarm), the vicar is shot, and the local policeman is stabbed by the vollage's secret fifth columnist. There are a few cliches - the Germans are resolutely evil (although occasionally dim at keeping their secret), there is the requisite plucky young lad who breaks through the enemy lines to the next village - but even here, the film earns itself some narrative latitude by shooting said lad in the leg, half-drowning him in a river, and merrily knocking off his poacher friend and dog.

The film isn't showy, but its crisp black-and-white photography is solid, and the editing creates a strong pace throughout. Some great location work adds to the atmosphere being created, and these elements combine to give the final battlescenes (in the fields and the manor house gardens) a real sense of urgency.

I think what impressed me most, however, was the playful black humour running through the film's drama: the aforementioned pepper pot incident, the German plot almost uncovered through a huge bar of Viennese 'Chokolade' in the commanding officer's kit bag, the hastily scrawled secret message for help being used, unwittingly, to prop open a dodgy car window, the home guard (pre-slaughter) noting innocently (and wrongly) that they can't have heard the church bells ring twice because that would be the code for enemy paratroopers having invaded... these little moments both lighten and add to the growing tension of the film. While it is never in doubt that good (i.e. England) will prevail, the willingness of the film to bump off its supporting cast does keep you guessing longer than you might expect.

I know not all Ealing films will rise to this level, but this was a great start to the Great Ealing Film Challenge...

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