I don’t have the biggest knowledge of early British cinema. I’m very familiar with the brilliant early Alfred Hitchcock films, and the darkly humorous Ealing Studio gems of the later 40s & 50s. Seeing a “serious” (if still somewhat macabre) film starring an early Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and co-scripted by Graham Greene, seemed like it would be a strong addition. It fell frustratingly flat.
Struggling to achieve the dry, whimsical humor that is found in most British cinema of the time, Olivier comes off as stodgy and uncomfortable behind the camera. Leigh too, though natural and beautiful, seems to have a very awkward connection with Olivier. It turns out that it had been filmed in 1937, and wasn’t released until 1940, after the two stars’ success in Gone With The Wind (Leigh) and Wuthering Heights (Olivier).
It is great, however, to see a pre-war London, especially considering that this was co-penned by Graham Greene. However, most of it is shot on a sound stage, (though there is a lovely 10-minute montage of the couple going to a carnival, and wandering the streets of london, “in love”). In this sense, as a curio, the film has a place in the Criterion Collection, I suppose — it was a transitionary film between pre & post-war England, and also positioned itself as an early transitionary vehicle for the two future-stars. Charming for its historical context, but disappointing as a film.
The humor wasn’t bright enough, the macabre wasn’t dark enough. And after all, those are the two things I expect from british cinema.