Friday, 25 November 2011

Super natural Shropshire... Gone to Earth (1950)

Michael Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, described Gone to Earth as "one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside". This is hard to deny as the director brought his unique sense of cinema to the depiction of the rolling hills of Shropshire near the border of England and Wales.

What he had done for Scotland in I Know Where I’m Going, the hebridean islands in The Edge of the World and to north Wales in the early film The Phantom Light, Powell brought to Shropshire. He created a heightened sense of the real through cinematography, painstaking location selection and expertly eerie sound recording.

The use of sound in P&P films played a crucial part in the creation of mood. With studio recorded sound mixed with on site recordings there is often dead silence punctuating the dialogue interrupted by almost over-amplified moments. It’s almost as if they used the limitations of audio recording to create a sense of expectation and the tension of still moments before something major is bound to happen.

Jennifer Jones recites a magical incantation as she pledges herself to her fateful course of action. She wants to hear the faerie music and, suddenly through soft gusts of wind is carried the mysterious sound of a harp. The camera cuts away to reveal her father playing someway off, but she believes the coincidence and makes no attempt to rationalise the moment. This is what Powell and Pressburger expect of us too…just believe and lose yourself.

Jones plays Hazel Woodus, a pure being of nature and as wild as the fox she keeps as a pet. She sings with a frail beauty that emphasises her purity and runs barefoot and wild through the hills - pure "jam" as one of the admiring locals calls her.

David Farrar is the epitome of rugged English masculinity playing the dis-likable rogue, John 'Jack' Reddin. He encounters Hazel late one rainy day and quickly decides that "she'll do". He knows what he wants and lures the innocent towards the decadence of his decaying manor house. At the same time, the newly arrived priest, Edward Marston played by the superb Cyril Cusack, also takes a more worshipful fancy to the pursued.

Hazel is torn between the two but marries the cleric only to find the draw of wild Jack too much to resist. She follows her base instinct and runs to his home only to be followed by Edward who is willing to risk reputation to be with her. Torn between the two extremes, is there any way Hazel can find peace - to strike a balance between nature and (a) man?
There's great support from a host of British character actors - especially Hugh Griffith and Anton Knight - along with a village full of actual villagers: funny how you can always tell! Jennifer Jones is simply outstanding. Her rural accent may be variable but it doesn't matter, she has the look and the ability to make us fall for this character. She is true to her self and in the end loves nature more than man. As Powell later wrote: "What a beautiful woman, great-hearted girl, inspired actress, restless soul!"

The film was controversial on a number of levels. Powell struggled to find a dog pack as the film was seen to be anti-hunting (it's far more complex than that) whilst producer David O. Selznick, upset by a perceived lack of screen time for Jones, his then girlfriend, had the film re-cut and retitled as The Wild Heart.

Unfortunately Gone to Earth has gotten rather collectable - I hadn't realized, sorry! - but is still available at inflated prices from Amazon. Not as powerful as the very best Archers films it is still a top quality production with many of the hallmarks of their glory years: the very best and most consistent partnership in British film history. Hopefully a re-release isn't far away.

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