A Canterbury Tale

(Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1944)


Late in his career, the great British director Michael Powell made Peeping Tom (1960), a film which draws a stark equation between the act of filmmaking and various perverse aberrations including voyeurism and murder. Sixteen years previously, in a far gentler mood, Powell pursued a very different line of analogy in order to understand his deep love for his chosen medium. In the wonderful A Canterbury Tale, movie watching is a fine, sedentary pleasure on a par with train travelling and churchgoing.

A Canterbury Tale is an utterly unique film which could only have been realised by a privileged pair – Powell and his close collaborator Emeric Pressburger. Although their films were not always commercially successful – and, as was the case here, were sometimes tampered with in the marketplace – they exercised total artistic control at the production stage. This video release is the full, two-hour version restored last decade by Britain’s National Film Archive.

It is a disarmingly whimsical and meandering piece, unhurriedly weaving together the stories of four modern “pilgrims” on their way to Canterbury. Bob (John Sweet) is a genial American soldier, contrasted with Peter (Dennis Price), a brooding British soldier. In a small Kent town they encounter Alison (Sheila Sim), who has been marked by a personal tragedy, and Thomas (Eric Portman), an elder statesman obsessed with historical legends of the region.

The collective search for a mysterious “glueman” – a local rascal who pours glue onto the heads of unsuspecting women at night – provides Powell and Pressburger with a thin, comic, plot pretext. Most of the film shows, in loving detail, the odd rituals of everyday life in Kent. It is from this quotidian reality that the understated but deeply moving pathos of the story emerges.

Martin Scorsese has called Powell and Pressburger “the most successful experimental filmmakers in the world”, and this film’s lackadaisical narrative, its mixture of sophistication and naïveté, and its alternation of comic and dramatic elements bears out his description. Above all there is a musical, almost abstract quality to the way A Canterbury Tale deploys light, camera movement and rhythm – a lasting testament to Powell’s life-long dream of creating a “pure cinema”.

MORE Powell & Pressburger: The Red Shoes

© Adrian Martin June 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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