In 1942 Noël Coward gave film editor David Lean his first break as a director by offering to share the helming of In Which We Serve. In the next three years Lean went on to direct three adaptations of Coward plays — This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter (all screenplays by Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan ). Each film retains The Master’s unmistakable touch, with complex structures, fearless honesty, and brilliantly understated dialogue. Unlike Coward’s earlier works, which portrayed witty, upper-middle-class types, these are dramas of everyday life and ordinary people struggling with love and war, heartache and death, showing their bravery, restraint, and self-control. It adds up to a portrait of what made Britain great.
The transfers in this four-disc set, from 2008 BFI film restorations, deliver all the gorgeously-lit, highly-detailed in-depth compositions cleansed of time’s ravages. Encounter and Serve have Neame’s delicious black-and-white cinematography while Breed and Spirit dazzle with his gorgeous Technicolor images of subtle tones and rich primaries. Blacks are inky but whites a little gray at times. All films have noticeable grain but it helps maintain their film-like quality.
In the mono soundtracks Coward’s dialogue is always divinely crisp and clear (though there is slight hiss) and voices and music are full and mellifluous.
Video: 1.33:1. Audio: LPCM Mono Extras: commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder, scholarly interviews on all of the films, interview with Ronald Neame, featurettes on In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, “David Lean: A Self Portrait” documentary, 1971 TV documentary on Lean, 1992 episode of British TV “The Southbank Show” on Coward, audio recording of 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward, booklet of essays. Studio: The Criterion Collection.
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