Criterion Box ‘David Lean Directs Noël Coward’ Reveals Much

by Eric Melin on April 22, 2012

in Blu-ray/DVD Reviews,Reviews

david-lean-directs-noel-coward-criterionFamous director David Lean is perhaps known best for his war epics The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, but The Criterion Collection has recently released a box set of Lean’s first four movies, and it shows that Lean was quickly becoming a master storyteller the moment he stepped out from the editing bay.

The Blu-ray/DVD set is called “David Lean Directs Noël Coward,” and it features the British wartime productions that Lean collaborated on with famous playwright/composer Noël Coward. Lean began this partnership as the “new kid,” and emerged a major player and the most revered English director of all time.

In Which We Serve (1942)

In-Which-We-Serve-lean-coward-1942Coward (credited as co-director on this film only) turned in a script for this Royal Navy propaganda film that was much too long to film, so Lean trimmed it down by employing a unique flashback/montage structure that actually deepens the movie, rather than being a device to fill in backstory (even if the ripple dissolve gets old real quick).

The captain of a British battleship (played by Coward himself) is stranded in a life raft with some of his men as German bombers continue to shell the area around them. As they think back to the events that led them there, it’s clear they are recalled with fondness.

Coward has plenty of rousing speeches, but In Which We Serve goes beyond what one would expect from a normal propaganda film. The sentiment of the men seems more earned than one might expect, there is very little demonizing of the German people, and cinematographer Ronald Neame‘s black-and-white shot composition is striking to say the least.

This Happy Breed (1944)

This-Happy-Breed-johnson-newtonAfter the financial and critical success of In Which We Serve (it received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), Coward began to take his collaborator more seriously. Their next project, This Happy Breed, was a Technicolor adaptation of a Cowrd stage play that had been written before the war.

Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are the married couple at the center of decades of working-class struggle, but This Happy Breed, as the title suggests, is a celebration of steely English resolve. There are ups and downs, kids who grow up and go separate ways, and a fair share of alcoholic binges, but  This Happy Breed isn’t trying to stir anything up.

It’s more of a tribute to those salt of the Earth families who keep going, no matter what kind of hardship comes their way. If it weren’t for some sensitive acting and Lean’s knack for filming these moments in long, uninterrputed takes, This Happy Breed might have come off more heavy-handed. As it is, it’s a well-balanced, mature drama.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

blithe-spirit-1945-cowardLean’s camera is less showy in his adaptation of Coward’s West End/Broadway hit play Blithe Spirit, but the film won an Oscar for its special effects, since at least one of its main characters spends the entire film as a ghost.

In this supernatural comedy, a dead Kay Hammond is raised by a séance on behalf of her ex-husband Rex Harrison and his new wife Constance Cummings. There are a lot of contrivances to swallow to get to this point, and more to follow. Margaret Rutherford, however, is right-on as a medium who seems to reside in another dimension completely.

Also filmed in Technicolor and taking place mainly in one house, Blithe Spirit has some very funny moments, but something in the timing is a bit off every now and then. Then again, that could be a result of some of the plot machinations, which require its dry, witty characters to remain at a distance from all the action, even as they are wrapped up in the middle of it. Either way, it’s the weakest film of the box.

Brief Encounter (1945) 

brief-encounter-1945The best movie to come from the Lean-Coward partnership is Brief Encounter, a romantic drama that seems simple on the surface, but even in the face of the extra-marital affair at is heart, has a heightened sense of morality. Like last year’s Iranian drama A Separation, Brief Encounter presents you with some very sympathetic people caught up in some morally challenging predicaments.

Celia Johnson (the rock star of this box set) meets an attractive doctor (Trevor Howard) at a train station and the two begin an affair borne out of needs that their own spouses just can’t deliver — and the need for something adventurous in one’s life.

The cinematography has dark noir overtones and makes great use of shadow. Because of both its story structure and its beautiful black-and-white shots, Brief Encounter is the best -looking film in the entire digitally remastered bunch.

Again, Lean uses flashbacks to great effect, illuminating seemingly unimportant moments later in the movie with high drama. Johnson’s voice-over is very unique in its naked honesty, and the camera takes on the role of showing what Johnson is thinking at any given moment — especially as the world whizzes by, uncaring. Brief Encounter makes an illicit love affair more than that, giving the doomed romance more of a soul than a thousand tragic romances since then.

Bonus content: A 30-minute featurette, an hour-long audio interview on In Which We Serve; an episode of The Southbank Show about Coward, a Brief Encounter commentary track from film historian Bruce Eder , an hourlong documentary about Lean on Brief Encounter; and bonus interviews with Coward experts and Lean collaborators are spread throughout the four discs.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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