Neo-Romantic Landscapes: Pictorial Aesthetics in Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth

Article excerpt

Part way through Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger's 1950 film, Gone to Earth, an unusual shot occurs that appears to have little or no narrative function. The central characters, Hazel (Jennifer Jones) and Edward (Cyril Cusack), separate to go to their respective rooms because, although the couple is recendy married, he wishes to retain her purity and refuses to consummate the marriage. In a moment of indecision, he pauses outside her door intending to return, but he finds Hazel's room locked. It is at this point that the camera cuts to an image of the exterior landscape, which is referred to in the film as God's Little Mountain (Snailbeach), an area in the Stiperstones range of the English hills of South Shropshire (Figure 1). Consisting of a low angle shot of a stony outcrop, the setting is littered witii small, shining, white rocks that dominate the foreground of the composition. These illuminate the otherwise dark landscape, creating an eerie mood. From mese stones, the eye is led to a number of strangely shaped rocks in the distance, which are silhouetted against the skyline. The only sound at this point is the noise of the wind blowing, this makes the landscape appear ghosdy, deserted, and unreal. Importantly, this shot does not take place from any of the characters' perspectives, nor does it further the narrative. Instead, it offers the spectator an encounter with a menacing landscape, devoid of human presence and arranged pictorially.

This essay suggests that Gone to Earth contains a number of these painterly images and, rather than being a faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, the film forms part of a broader cultural climate that existed in Britain in the 1940s, both during and after the Second World War, labeled Neo-Romanticism.1

Gone to Earth was directed toward the end of the fifteen-year partnership between Powell and Pressburger. They had co-written, co-directed, and co-produced a number of films during the 1940s under their company name, The Archers, such as A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and Black Narcissus (1947). In diese films, including Gone to Earth, Powell and Pressburger draw inspiration from various national and international settings, albeit not idyllic pastoral landscapes, but dark and somber representations of the countryside invested with myth and mysticism, and which operate as sites of pagan practices and beliefs. Although Mary Webb's book also expresses concerns with pagan beliefs and rituals, it does not deliver vivid descriptions of the landscape; instead it is driven by a narrative of romance. Produced during and immediately after a period of conflict, the Second World War, and therefore arguably to an audience receptive to this type of imagery, Powell and Pressburger's landscapes were both filmic and painterly. This aspect was noted in various contemporary reviews of Gone to Earth by critics who were aware of the film's pagan associations. As one commentator points out:

[i] t is difficult to know what to make of this film. The original novel is absurd enough, but Mary Webb had at least a passionate absorption in her weird rustic world, and attempted no more than a tragic little story of a pagan child of nature, hunted, like her pet fox, to death by human beings. Powell and Pressburger appear to have inflated it to an allegorical statement of spiritual and carnal love fighting it out over an innocent being, and their slow, portentous method makes the slight story seem even more ridiculous than perhaps it is. (Lambert 149)

The "slow" and "portentous method" alluded to by Lambert suggests the frequent lack of narrative causality apparent in the film, and indirectly references the lengthy shots that appear without narrative reason. While the book is tightly structured with sparing descriptions of the landscape, Powell and Pressburger demonstrate a greater preoccupation with Neo-Romantic visual imagery, and these compositions share similarities with a number of art works executed contemporaneously by the Neo-Romantic artists. …