“WE ARE NAKED!” gasps a Victorian-era father when his middle-class Scottish daughter’s affair with a Frenchman is exposed. It’s a high point of the 1950 film Madeleine—one of director David Lean’s unsung masterpieces, part of Film Forum’s long-awaited series, David Lean:Ten British Classics (Sept. 12-25).
That howl of paternalistic shock powerfully reverberates throughout Madeleine,shatter ing the misguided notion that Lean’s movies epitomize unsensual, predictable,Tory blandness.This showcase of Lean’s first 10 features reveals one of the strongest, most impressive careers in movie history (his final six films conclude the series). Perfectionist Lean was a giant; only small-minded movie goers would miss this retrospective.
Ironically, Lean’s most celebrated film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), unbalanced his reputation: linking his name to the cliché of epic-length stories in exotic locales.While Lawrence is certainly one of the greatest films ever made, its awesome spectacle has obscured its precise psychological detail, grasp of history and astonishing craft.The earlier, lesser-known films are intimate spectacles—fine scrutinies of England’s class system; but, more impressively, they exam ine the empire’s emotional and sexual underpinnings.
Lean’s second most-acclaimed film, Brief Encounter (1946), has recently been dismissed as a bourgeois weepie, largely because of the paradox of film critics (that most bourgeois profession) objecting to Lean’s spiritual dissection of their class.
Critics’ enthusiasm has, instead, shifted to Lean’s colleague Michael Powell whose fer vent theatrics (Black Narcissus,The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom) carry more obvious sentiment and are easily comprehended. Lean’s reputation has suffered from his lack of ostentation.
His taste and refinement have distracted casual viewers from recognizing his depth and daring—as when Madeleine mocks her father’s urge for her to marry by suggesting he wants to bring her suitor “to the boil”; the fa ther harrumphs, “That is both vulgar and flippant!”The response isn’t stodgy—and it isn’t Lean’s. Rather, it shrewdly conveys the middle-class hypocrisy that rebellious Madeleine flouts yet secretly shares.
That Lean has a complex understanding of British class doesn’t mean he is uncritical; England’s best artists traditionally critique social inequities. But Lean’s critique is finely complicated—something even scholar Edward Said misunderstood when he fashionably slagged Lawrence of Arabia in the P.C. 1980s. Since 9/11, it’s been apparent that no aspect of the West’s historical involvement/arrogance regarding the Middle East escaped Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt’s vision. Remarkably, that film’s in side/outside view of Lawrence—strategist, adventurer, homosexual, hero, enigma—is consistent with Lean’s other protagonists.
Starting with his directorial debut, the WWII film In Which We Serve (1942), Lean connected national character to cultural idiosyncrasy, personal drama to social adventure.
Co-directing four films with playwright-per former Noel Coward instilled in Lean a distinct appreciation for characterization as well as a flawless sense of dramatic structure— such that Spielberg copied In Which We Serve for the dramatic climax of Schindler’s List. (It’s also significant that Lean’s early career as a film editor included the 1938 version of Shaw’s Pygmalion—another example of social critique melding personal drama into eloquent comedy.) Coward was one of the protean figures of 20th-century theater (Britain’s Orson Welles) yet Lean himself became Welles’ cinematic equal.
To this day, Lean remains an unsurpassed film artist—a supreme technician on the level of Welles, Bresson, Antonioni and Kubrick, matching their gravity and wit, too. In Madeleine, Lean’s deep-focus com positions and chiaroscuro evoke the sumptuous historicism of The Magnificent Ambersons. It starts as contemporary documentary, then cinematographer Guy Green shifts to the 19th-century setting through a style resembling high-relief engravings. See ing this movie is like touching it. Lean’s visual command has been held against him for too long. Key to his artistry, Lean’s visual accents prove his erudition.
Although his famous Dickens films, Great Expectations (1947) and Oliver Twist (1948), also delimited his reputation, they are far more than mere literary adaptations. Both revere English cultural heritage yet bring it to life. It’s as if those books were suddenly lit from within and their meanings made radiant. Every image, camera movement, every edit and sound communicates ideas and feelings. Lean used Dickens to express what Roland Barthes called “The Pleasure of the Text,” but this was Lean’s own pleasure in kinetic narrative. Unembarrassed by cultural tradition, Lean’s so phisticated adaptations distilled Dickens to cinematic essence.The caricatures have psychological essence and social truth. Finlay Currie’s Magwitch, Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham, Jean Simmons’ Estella and Alec Guinness’ Fagin still haunt pop culture.
Dickens’ stories of cruelty and compassion link the two through recognizable human nature and its odd ardent forms (like Guinness’ discreetly fey Herbert Pocket). For Lean, story order and balance (not Powell’s hysterics) represent an artist’s search for existential justice, which is a constant theme. He was less interested in realism than in stylizing and elucidating experience—whether with his phantasmagorical Dickens movies or his later, big-screen spectacles of man within phenomenological environments.
All Lean’s movies are Life Epics, about i dividuals’ (from John Mills’ Pip to Katharine Hepburn’s Rosie; and from Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence to Victor Bannerjee’s Dr. Aziz) and their dawning conscience.This is most apparent in his underrated (or unknown) quartet of love stories: Brief Encounter, Madeleine,The Passionate Friends and Summertime. All feature female protagonists with Lean (collaborating