Book Review: Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

| October 24, 2011 | Comments (0)

Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

Title: Anthony Asquith (British Film Makers)

Author: Tom Ryall

When Anthony Asquith began his career in the 1920s, he initially ran neck and neck with Alfred Hitchcock as one of the leading lights of British silent cinema. From a privileged background – his father, H.H Asquith, was Prime Minister during the years of World War I – he benefited hugely from the connections his family had made in the United States, enjoying an apprenticeship under none other than the great Charlie Chaplin. In his first handful of films, Asquith demonstrated a desire to absorb the influences of the European avant-garde and the experimental montage techniques of the Soviet School, early silent efforts such as Underground and Shooting Stars dealt with realistic themes in a visually striking and original fashion. Ironically, his later successes as a director of adaptations of stage plays by the likes of Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan led to him being labelled a conservative journeyman, content to play it safe with the un-cinematic business of filming established plays with middle-class themes. As Tom Ryall points out in this indispensable study of Asquith’s films, his career seemed to run in a sort of strange, reverse parallel with the development of film form itself.

While cinematic innovators sought to establish a dynamic filmic language to escape from the stifling influence of the stage-bound traditional play, Asquith seemed to retreat from his initial bold innovation into a conservative style very much dependent for his material on proven stage successes. Unlike his contemporary Hitchcock, Asquith has never been a fashionable figure, perhaps as a result of soiling his legacy with bloated late efforts such as the U.S-British co-productions The VIP’s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), two films that could not be further from the spirit of the ‘60’s zeitgeist exemplified by continental directors like Godard and Truffaut. Part of Ryall’s mission in this book is to re-evaluate Asquith’s career, replacing the unfair emphasis on Asquith’s more conservative efforts with a perceptive look at how some of his lesser-known works reflected the Britain of the times as well as expressing a very British sense of national identity and character.

Tom Ryall’s study of Asquith and his career concentrates solely on his films, veering away from any biographical detail of the director’s often turbulent life. A closeted homosexual who struggled with alcoholism, Asquith’s placid demeanour masked an inner torment which Ryall acknowledges informed the themes of deception and identity crisis which were a strong element of some of his most illustrious efforts, including Pygmalion (1938), The Browning Version (1951) and most famously, The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). The real strength of Ryall’s book however, is how it draws parallels between contemporaneous events in Britain and how these coloured and influenced Asquith’s output. The book is particularly strong on the war years, when Asquith put his shoulder to the wheel for his country by making a succession of stirring, patriotic war films which encouraged a powerful sense of national pride. Films such as Freedom Radio (1941) and We Dive at Dawn (1944) extolled the virtues of freedom in a way which brilliantly reflected the stiff-upper lip stoicism of a very particular type of Britishness, these films are now of immense historical interest to anyone with an interest in the period. Ryall also re-evaluates some of Asquith’s less-trumpeted works – such as the noirish The Woman in Question (1950) and the sci-fi curiosity The Net (1953) – doing much to re-ignite interest in some of the director’s less stagey efforts.

Asquith’s distinguished career stretched from the early days of British silent cinema up to the experimental climate of the 1960s, and so this intensive look at his filmography also serves as a handy potted history of British film itself. This study is another exemplary entry in the British Film Makers series, and while readers looking for any biographical detail on this highly interesting figure will have to look elsewhere, Tom Ryall’s book is absolutely invaluable for any student of the British film industry in the first half of the 20th century.

Martin Cusack

Paperback: 204 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press; New in paperback edition (28th Jun 2011)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0719064538
ISBN-13: 978-0719064531
Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 1.5 cm

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Category: Book Reviews, Reviews

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