Tribeca Review: Martin Scorsese Exudes Wisdom in Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger

Tribeca Review: Martin Scorsese Exudes Wisdom in Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger

There’s an argument to be made that the single image which best exemplifies pure cinematic wonder is the Archers logo. The introductory title reel belonged to the production company of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a guarantee that whatever film followed would whisk the viewer away to a world of ecstatic imagination. The British filmmaking duo delivered sweeping, epic tales on a vibrant cinematic canvas painted with a style uniquely their own, and often found themselves on the periphery of their country’s popular cinema during their careers. While they came to be appreciated in the decades that followed the peak of their creative output, they have long passed, so David Hinton’s riveting new documentary Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger brings the most qualified voice possible to speak on their contributions to the medium: Martin Scorsese.

Considering Scorsese’s close connection to their work, from being captivated at a young age by The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes to finding a connection with Peeping Tom as an obsessive young filmmaker to later becoming friends with Powell (who married Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker), he’s the perfect guide through their filmography. As the sole talking head narrating the duo’s life and career, Scorsese brings as much personal touch and passion here as he did to his own cinema-obsessed documentaries My Voyage to Italy or A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. By utilizing a De Palma-esque chronological structure in which Scorsese details each of their career steps with heartfelt narration, accompanied by a plethora of clips and never-before-seen archival footage, this in-depth, comprehensive approach makes for a new essential document of cinema history. In fact, one of the major takeaways is the devastating realization that Scorsese doesn’t have the resources or time to collaborate on similar documentaries for his numerous other cinematic idols.

However, it’s clear throughout why Powell and Pressburger’s cinema stirred something particularly special in Scorsese’s soul. In dissecting The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (their magnum opus, for my money, and which thankfully gets its due), Scorsese details how Powell and Pressburger’s decision to not pull the camera up and away during the duel directly influenced the Steadicam shot approaching the ring in Raging Bull instead of the fight itself. The heart of the story is more about the “destructive road Jake took to get to the fight rather than the fight itself,” Scorsese notes. For The Age of Innocence, he wanted to capture “an impossible love between two people who aren’t supposed to fall in love… and it lasts for years,” and Scorsese adds, “I believe it was the same frustrated desire, tinged with regret, that I liked so much in Blimp.” 

As much as it’s a delight for Scorsese to show the direct influences on his work, a triple biography this is not, and Made in England wisely gives the bulk of its spotlight to Powell and Pressburger. Hinton’s direction is swift; Margarida Cartaxo and Stuart Davidson’s editing is refreshingly concise and straightforward to elucidate the exhaustive amount of information collected. The clips and accompanying narration speak for themselves, with the only additional flourishes being welcome touches like behind-the-scenes shots side-by-side with the final images, while archival interviews, photographs, and storyboards help flesh out the painstaking but relatively smooth filmmaking process. Pressburger would write the original script which established scenes, then they would work on dialogue together, and the duo reportedly never argued. There are, of course, the exceptions, clashing with producers on the likes of The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth, but the directors’ pure enjoyment at experimenting with the tools of cinema always shines through.

At the film’s start, Scorsese recounts how, watching their work growing up, Powell and Pressburger felt like mythical beings. A key feat of Made in England is that, even after all the considered insight from both him and the directors themselves, this sentiment remains true. “They wanted to achieve the kind of heightened interest that is only achieved through artifice,” he notes. Even in the decades since their work, there seems to be no other filmmaker that can quite capture the dreamlike and fantastical yet sincere worlds they were able to conjure. In declaring Colonel Blimp their “first masterpiece,” Scorsese tenderly reveals, “It’s the film that says the most to me about growing up, growing old, and eventually having to let go.” While its form may be that of a standard biographical documentary, Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger is elevated by Scorsese’s bittersweet chronicling, of a filmmaker near the end of his career reflecting back on the forces that shaped his own. As he and his fellow “movie brats” reclaimed the work of the directors in the 1970s, when Powell and Pressburger’s careers hit a sharp decline, this new documentary synthesizes and solidifies their contributions to an entirely new generation. It’s simply a cinephile’s dream.

Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger played at the Tribeca Festival and opens July 12 from Cohen Media Group.

Grade: B+

The post Tribeca Review: Martin Scorsese Exudes Wisdom in Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger first appeared on The Film Stage.