“A CANTERBURY TALE” ( 1944 ) – This movie is as much about feelings, emotions…longings, memories, as it is of plot points and solving a mystery. It takes its own sweet time moving the plot along. In no great hurry, it weaves and wends its way as you might, walking down a country road in summer. We see vignettes of life.
The movie’s mood is set from the beginning when we see a caravan of Renaissance folk make their pilgrimage along the Canterbury Road. We see a hawk in flight and then jump cut to a modern plane leapfrogging us into the 20th century six hundred years ahead. The same actor is used looking at both those shots in both those time periods. This movie is all about connection.
Then there’s Sheila Sim as Alison. The story focuses on her… ( she’s the recent victim of glue in her hair. ) I understand Powell wanted his lover, Deborah Kerr, for the part, but nego-tiations ( and her going to Hollywood ) fell through. Kerr’s my girl, but I have to say Sim is absolutely wonderful in the movie. I find her compelling to watch; her open-faced natural beauty and innocent air belies her steely resolve to get to the bottom of the Glue Man’s identity. She’s simple, straight-forward. She’s got pluck and both soldiers can see that. But she, too, is nursing a broken heart. Her fiancee’s plane has gone down in enemy fire.
The three get down to the business of finding out who the Glue Man is. Alison contacts victims and Bob gets these small boys’ to help investigate. Bob is so cute with these young boys who play soldier. This will all become very real for them soon enough. Bob respects them as “soldiers” and entreats their aid. But interspersed with their investigation, the three adults live their lives: look for work, continue military maneuvers and explore this strange country while on leave. There are many a quiet moment between characters in this movie. A glance, a smoke, a conversation. Alison and Bob commiserate over their lost loves. They’re becoming friends, and befriend others.
When Peter goes to question Colpeper for information, he winds up doing all the talking; all the revealing No no, don’t think I’ve forgotten Eric Portman. I just don’t know how to approach him. I do it warily for fear he’ll bewitch me and suck me in too. He plays Magistrate Thomas Col-peper and he is incredibly riveting to watch. There’s something mesmerizing about him. ( Ha…a softer version of Anton Wolbrook in “The Red Shoes” ). He’s insightful, can look into people. He hears the past and has a romantic way of talking about it. He’s disarming at the same time slightly officious. His formality is fetching. I want to loosen his tie and muss his hair. ( But I don’t dare. )
COLPEPER: “It’s only a day’s walk from Chillingbourne.” PETER: “What, fifty miles? Some walk.” COLPEPER: “Not if you like walking. Do you like walking? PETER: “Not if I can help it. Why walk if there’s a train. I see Sir, you’re interested in mountaineering.” COLPEPER: “Yes I do a bit of it. I suppose you'd recommend me to wait at the bottom until somebody builds a vehicular railway. PETER: "I say why climb to the top at all. What's wrong with the valley? COLPEPER: "The answer's in yourself."
Peter reveals more about himself than he has found out about Colpeper. Isn’t that sometime the case when we seek information? And we learn a little more about him ourselves. It seems when Alison, Bob and Peter come in contact with Colpeper, he affects a change in them. He gives a lecture in town for the soldiers about the past of Canterbury and its hold on the present. It’s magic. And maybe why they are fighting for England in this soon-to-be-war. As he speaks, we see a connection…an attraction between Colpeper and Alison.
Powell and Pressburger reveal the attraction in the mirrored Image at the lec-ture. Their eyes hold each other.
Their initial meeting was antagonistic, and she is wary of him. But hearing his lecture sof-tens her a bit; a spell? We’re not quite sure who is mesmerizing whom.
On her walk down Canterbury Road Alison hears the pilgrims of long ago…perhaps influenced or enchanted by his lecture. In the field Colpeper lays in wait. He asks her to join him. I felt nervous for her being with this rather odd duck in the fields, but I needn’t. They become closer, more intimate in conversation in the tall grass. She tells him of her lost lover. He talks of listening to clouds.
“Just now I was concentrating on who was “…when you believe strongly in something.”
coming up the hill to disturb me, breathing
the air, smelling the earth, watching the
clouds. Why don’t you sit down?”
She really gets into their conversation, even so much as to hide from her two soldier buddies as they pass by. She’s not the girl Colpeper thought she was. I think he falls for her, this trusting straight-forward, true girl.
How can I say anymore about this film without giving it away. There are so many moments that draw me in, moments that pull at me.
ALISON: “He thought his son should marry someone better than a shopgirl.” COLPEPER: “‘Good family.’ ‘Shop girl.’ Rather delapidated phra- ses for wartime.” ALISON: “Not for Jeffrey’s father. It would have taken an earth- quake.” COLPEPER: “We’re having one now.” ALISON: “Did you believe in miracles?” COLPEPER: “When I was your age I didn't believe in anything.” ALISON: "For shop girls?" COLPEPER: “For anyone. You know I think a shopgirl has a bigger chance for a miracle than a millionaire.” ALISON: “I can see you’ve never been a shopgirl.” COLPEPER: “Nor a millionaire.”
Their scene in the field was intensely intimate. Yes, in the broad daylight under the sky. The quiet reflection, the camaraderie of the three leads, the cat-and-mouse game between our comrades-in-arm and the Glue Man, each of the three finding their blessing, the quiet way Bob answers Colpeper, Colpeper himself, the march to Canterbury Cathe-dral, the all-encompassing meaning behind Alison saying: “Pity” that sums up EVERYTHING. Seeing Colpeper’s head bowed inside Canterbury Cathedral as Alison passes by him devastates me. I hadn’t seen this film before; I didn’t know where it was going but I was a willing follower, floating whereever it would take me.
THEY’RE ALL ON THEIR WAY TO CANTERBURY, EACH A LITTLE WISER…WITH LESSONS LEARNED
When I first saw this movie, I woke up with the tv on and there it was. I watched a lot of it in this half-grogged, dream-wake-sleep state. I didn’t know what the heck I was seeing; just had an overwhelming sense of wonderment at how things were unspooling. I watched it fully awake later, and realized the wonderment and joy was not a dream.
“A Canterbury Tale” is so expansive, words feel too small to wrap around it. A more recent comment from 3/4/2022:
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