Conceived and shot in the space of a few weeks due to the Solidarity crisis of December 1981, Jerzy Skolimowski‘s black comedy is much more than a political tract: it’s a profound, gripping comedy of terror and isolation, oppression and entrapment. Jeremy Irons, in a performance worthy of Chaplin, is the head of a Polish construction crew doing illegal work on a flat in London; when the military coup occurs back home, Irons—the only member of the group who speaks English—must keep it a secret from his men. Though the film is founded on a metaphor, it is never forced or abstract: Skolimowski’s direction is a concrete creative response to these actors in this setting at this time, making full expressive use of the details, gestures, and situations at hand. It is, in short, a film—unimaginable as theater or literature—and very possibly a great one.
Franc Roddam‘s 1979 film of The Who‘s rock opera aligns sociological observation and romantic fantasy to create an extravagant, involving teenpic with a responsible intellectual grounding. The dark, grimy visual style meets the Who’s naive plotting straight on to create a kind of mythic realism; stirring, archetypal situations clothed in pseudodocumentary grit. The hero, a jumpy young mod played with commanding intensity by Phil Daniels, achieves one moment of perfect bliss and then self-destructs, a motif straight out of 19th-century romantic fiction.
Crackpot professor Lionel Jeffries leads an 1899 expedition in an entertaining 1964 children’s fantasy based on an H.G. Wells novel. The idea of a Victorian outer space is charming, even if the British humor is overplayed. Animator Ray Harryhausen contributes a few memorable effects, including a giant stop-motion caterpillar. With Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, and an uncredited Peter Finch; former art director Nathan Juran (who designed the Welsh village in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley) directed.
It’s almost impossible to define this 1943 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was ostensibly based on a cartoon series that satirized the British military class, yet its attitude toward the main character is one of affection, respect, and sometimes awe; it was intended as a propaganda film, yet Churchill wanted to suppress it; it has the romantic sweep of a grand love story, yet none of the romantic relationships it presents is truly fulfilled, and the film’s most lasting bond is one between the British colonel (Roger Livesey) and his Prussian counterpart (Anton Walbrook). Pressburger’s screenplay covers 40 years in the colonel’s life through a series of brilliantly constructed flashbacks, compressions, and ellipses; Powell’s camera renders the winding plot through boldly deployed Technicolor hues and camera movements of exquisite design and expressivity. It stands as very possibly the finest film ever made in Britain. With Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, and James McKechnie. 163 min.