Romantics and Modernists in British Cinema

November 8, 2012

Author: John Orr

Edition: First

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Pages: 208

Price: £75.00 and £19.99

ISBN: 9780748640140 and 4937

In the introduction, John Orr sets out his intention to write "a history mainly, a reflective meditation on time past and time recent, selective certainly, but totally unlike, I would hope, anything that has been written for quite some time". It's a bold claim, but one that he comes close to bringing off. Any film student looking for a refreshingly different - and highly readable - take on British cinema will find an intriguingly unorthodox perspective here.

The weakest element in Orr's thesis is what might appear, from his title, to represent its key element: just what he means by "Romantic" and "Modernist". His definition of the terms slides fluidly around and between the supposed dichotomy, and never quite holds water. "Romantic and modernist aesthetics are contrary impulses which inhere in most directors in varying degrees," he tells us, "so that no absolute division between them ever emerges." Convenient, that. Later, he asserts that "Romantics wish through art to transcend the fractured and divisive life-world they see around them and recompose it", while "modernists strive to explore the vast mosaic of the life-world's imminent nature and take it as it is". By that definition, could Byron really be called a Romantic - or Picasso a Modernist?

But in fact this seemingly crucial lacuna hardly matters. What's valuable is the way that Orr forges unexpected links and cross-patterns, tracing continuities between films that rarely appear in the same chapter, let alone the same sentence, of other accounts of UK cinema. Exploring the transgressive onscreen nexus between sex, race and class, he maps a line from E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly (1929) through Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! (1930) to Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986), Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss (2005), among others. Likewise, he posits a strain of "romantic realism" underlying the war films of Humphrey Jennings, David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and Robert Hamer's It Always Rains on Sunday (1947).

What's more, Orr values films that often get overlooked or sidelined as negligible: Lean's "Ann Todd trilogy" - The Passionate Friends (1948), Madeleine (1950) and The Sound Barrier (1952) - or Hitchcock's Number Seventeen (1932). In the latter, generally dismissed as a rubbishy potboiler tossed off on the cheap, he finds "pure early modernism...surreal and constructivist at the same time". And while Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is often written off as evidence of the director's declining powers, Orr pairs it with Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) and Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) in exploring "the menace of a cinematic London".

Altogether, this book presents an original, provocative and illuminating mapping of British cinema that no student - or serious film buff - should miss.

Who is it for? Second- or third-year film studies students and postgraduates.

Presentation: Well laid out and compulsively readable.

Would you recommend it? Yes, for anyone at university level or beyond who is interested in exploring outside the conventional wisdom.

Recommended

A History of Greek Cinema

Author: Vrasidas Karalis

Edition: First

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Continuum

Pages: 344

Price: £65.00 and £19.99

ISBN: 9781441135001 and 4473

The Cinema of Eric Rohmer: Irony, Imagination, and the Social World

Author: Jacob Leigh

Edition: First

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Continuum

Pages: 392

Price: £70.00 and £22.99

ISBN: 9781441171399 and 98310

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