Blu-ray Review: Glorious Criterion Box Set For ‘David Lean Directs Noel Coward’

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CHICAGO – For fans less familiar with the four films in the new Criterion box set — “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” — one might be easily forgiven for assuming that the four films are very similar. Let’s be honest. “Tim Burton Directs Johnny Depp” and “Martin Scorsese Directs Robert De Niro” would have some definite thematic commonality. Perhaps that’s why it’s SO remarkable how different each of the four films in this set ended up. They are each of a different genre and, therefore, serve as an amazing history lesson into how one of our most beloved filmmakers began his career by experimenting with genre and form. And he did so with an amazing creative partner. These are the building blocks for what David Lean would do over the rest of his career. And they’re presented with Criterion level transfers and fascinating extras. This is the best HD box set of the year to date.

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-ray rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

The four films included were all released from 1942-1945. It started with 1942’s “In Which We Serve,” which starred Coward, who went to a young editor named David Lean with his idea for a drama about the Royal Navy in the middle of actual combat. Imagine that. As Britain was being shelled, Noel Coward and David Lean made a melancholy, striking film about the Royal Navy during the War. The film intercuts time in combat with memories of time at home and Coward co-directed (the only time he would do so) as Lean made his directorial debut. The film’s grasp of the personal aspect of a worldwide story would be seen again in some of Lean’s most famous later-career works. It looks the oldest of the films with a heavy level of grain in a sometimes muted transfer but it’s the film itself that’s most interesting. Yes, it was propaganda for the war but it was very moving and unique propaganda (that was actually nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture) and already displayed a filmmaker exploring the themes that would interest him for decades.

Special Features on “In Which We Serve”
o New high-definition digital transfer of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
o New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
o A Profile of In Which We Serve,” a short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
o Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between actor Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre
o Trailer

David Lean Directs Noel Coward was released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on March 27, 2012
David Lean Directs Noel Coward was released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on March 27, 2012
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Lean and Coward’s next collaboration would switch from war film to family drama as he adapted Coward’s “This Happy Breed,” a story that takes place after World War I and was released in 1944. It was Lean’s directorial debut, and while it’s my least favorite of the four in the set, it is, once again, an interesting piece historically. This was the first time Lean was on his own — Coward didn’t even star as he reportedly wanted to — and it displays a confidence that young filmmakers don’t often have. The film is also interesting historically as it’s a clear effort on the part of Coward to bridge the gap between the great wars as the story takes place between WWI and WWII. The ability to place the human story in the context of history, once again, would be a Lean staple. As for the transfer, “Breed” looks a little better than “Serve” and was also lovingly restored in 2008 by the British Film Institute.

Special Features on “This Happy Breed”
o New high-definition digital transfer of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
o New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
o Interview with cinematographer-screenwriters-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
o Trailers

David Lean Directs Noel Coward was released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on March 27, 2012
David Lean Directs Noel Coward was released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on March 27, 2012
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

The last two films in the set are easily the most famous, the delightful comedy “Blithe Spirit” and the true classic “Brief Encounter.” “Spirit” features a surprisingly fun Lean directing the set’s only comedy, an adaptation of a massive Broadway hit. Rex Harrison is delightful as a novelist who inadvertently calls forth the spirit of his dead wife. The film actually won the Oscar for Best Special Effects and has retained much of its sweet charm. The HD transfer here is surprisingly strong.

However, it’s “Brief Encounter” that is the real gem of the set and a film that Criterion had included in its collection before on DVD (it’s #76). To call “Brief Encounter” daring and influential would be wild understatements. Lean’s beautiful doomed romance feels like it has lived on in so many other (typically lesser) films. I was reminded of it as recently as “The Deep Blue Sea” and said to my wife while watching it, “It feels like every romantic drama that has included a scene in a train station references Brief Encounter.” The transfer is spectacular, but it’s the film that’s even better than you remember. No wonder it was the last one that Coward and Lean made together. They couldn’t top it.

Special Features on “Blithe Spirit”
o New high-definition digital transfer of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
o New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
o Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
o Trailer

Special Features on “Brief Encounter”
o New high-definition digital transfer of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
o Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder
o New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
o A Profile of “Brief Encounter,” a short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
o David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary
o Trailer

“David Lean Directs Noel Coward” was released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on March 27th, 2012. It includes “In Which We Serve,” “This Happy Breed,” “Blithe Spirit,” and “Brief Encounter.”

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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