Hobson’s Choice (1954)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 18 February (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago, I bought The David Lean Collection, a set of the great British director’s films from before his international standing grew and the budgets expanded, instead showcasing his earlier directorial efforts. In many ways, the ten movies in this boxset are better than anything that came later. With less money to spend and narrower palettes upon which to craft his vision, Lean made sharper focused pictures, driven very much by their characters and working with some very fine British actors. There’s the occasional misfire; I found The Sound Barrier to be a little tedious and slow, not to mention factually inaccurate. But most are excellent, headed by the unimpeachable Brief Encounter and his definitive Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, plus the winning collaboration with Noel Coward that produced In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed.

Rubbing shoulders with these prestigious affairs is Hobson’s Choice, which maintains Lean’s high standards. It’s based on a play written by Harold Brighouse in 1915, which itself was a turn on the old expression, ‘Hobson’s Choice,’ referring to a situation where there was no real choice one could make. It had already been adapted for the screen twice before Alexander Korda approached Lean to direct this version, which he took on as a change of pace from 1952’s The Sound Barrier, a nice shift from aeronautical drama to northern comedy. Lean wanted Roger Livesey for the eponymous Hobson but got Charles Laughton instead. In hindsight a great bit of casting, and it’s difficult to picture the hoarse voiced Livesey – superb as a dramatic actor, especially for Powell and Pressburger, but less natural within comedic surroundings – as the tyrannical drunken boor who dominates the story.

As for Laughton, his career had already arced by this point. An internationally famous star, the Scarborough born Laughton had played Hobson years ago as a young man on the stage, but since then had enjoyed years of success though was beginning to wane, fortunate for the production as he had a tendency to overpower films with his presence. He was cast against Brenda de Banzie as Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie. Better known for her work on the stage, the native Mancunian de Banzie was perfect for the part, unwilling to be cowed by her screen father and determined to marry outside his wishes. The third major name was John Mills, almost unrecognisable as the mild-mannered shoemaker, William Mossop, but becoming more Millsian as the film progresses along with his character’s levels of confidence. Mills, again not the first choice for the role (it was originally offered to Robert Donat, who declined due to his long running problems with asthma), was uncertain about playing a Lancashire working class lad, but showed a gift for comedy and ran away with the film’s heart.

Hobson’s Choice takes place in Salford, Manchester, in 1890. Against a backdrop of satanic mills, smoking chimneys and Coronation Street accents,  Henry Hobson owns a successful bootmaker’s. We first meet him when he enters the store in the dead of night, blind drunk after another evening at the Moonraker pub, and it soon becomes clear that he has very little to do with running the shop. The boots are made with some brilliance by the unassuming Mossop, whilst it’s Hobson’s three daughters who do all the work, both within the business and for him personally. He’s not only a drunk but a terrible father to boot (sorry), declaring to his daughters that he will chose their husbands for them and showing a violent streak when the forthright Maggie opts instead for Mossop, believing that his practical skills and her business nous will make for a brilliant partnership. It does. While Will carries on doing what he does best, Maggie makes a more rounded man of him, teaching him his letters and boosting his confidence so that by the end of the film even his pudding bowl haircut has grown out. In the meantime, Hobson’s relationship with the drink continues. A brilliant comic scene sees him leave the Moonraker, pissed up, having told his drinking buddies exactly what he thinks of them, before he chases a reflection of the moon in the street’s puddles, at one stage taking a while to realise that what he’s staring at isn’t the moon at all but rather his own round face. He ends up collapsing down a store cellar and falling asleep.

The ‘choice’ refers not to his decision over the daughters’ marriages, but the precise lack thereof as he first runs into trouble with the law and, later, growing sick through his dependence on alcohol, is forced to go into a partnership with Mossop and Maggie, who resume their old duties but on far better terms. There’s a lovely moment when Mossop comes into the shop at the end and addresses everyone on equal terms, having come a long way from the lowly shoemaker confined to the cellar.

Lean was first recognised as a technically gifted director, only gaining an ability to film performers convincingly over time. By the time he made Hobson’s Choice, both sides of his talent were fully developed, with some fine realisation of the rise of Mossop from his modest roots to well-heeled proprietor. This is matched by the teasing out of his personality as he learns to love Maggie. When she first proposes marriage, he’s unconvinced, doesn’t love her and goes along with it more out of ‘knowing his place’ rather than following his heart. The scene on their wedding night, when she’s getting ready for bed and he knows he’ll have to join her and procrastinates, stoking the fire to waste time, is a delight, as much of the sight of them the following morning, when love has clearly blossomed.

Hobson’s Choice: ****

Brief Encounter (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 27 July (3.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

The 100th review on this site covers one of the unimpeachably finest examples of British cinema, and a reminder that before he was handed lavish budgets and dealt with grand subjects, David Lean was capable of producing genius from intimate little films about ordinary people.

Brief Encounter marked the final collaboration between Lean and Noel Coward. It’s based on the latter’s play Still Life, Lean taking a hand in the linear narrative by telling the story in flashback. Both are instances of economic construction. Celia Johnson was given the role played on stage by Gertrude Lawrence of Laura Jesson, a housewife in her 30s whose routine includes Thursday trips into Milford. It’s during one of these visits, while Laura waits in the Milford Junction train station cafe for her connection, that her ‘brief encounter’ begins. Suffering from grit in her eye, she’s attended to by Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a physician who successfully removes it before catching his own train home. Laura thinks little of the incident besides a feeling of gratitude and mild interest, but a chance meeting the following week gives the romance a chance to blossom. Before long, the pair are spending their Thursdays together, Alec forgoing his practice to meet Laura in restaurants and going to the cinema with her. And then they kiss, the start of an affair both know is wrong yet neither wants to end.

The story is told from Laura’s perspective, and her narration provides the film’s heart. From the start of the affair, it’s made clear that she doesn’t really like it. The love she quickly develops for Alec is a sensation she’s trapped within. It’s something she literally can’t help, but it brings her no happiness, only guilt as she returns home to her solid, boring husband (Cyril Raymond), treats every illness her children succumb to as moral punishment and listens to the emotionally turbulent piano concertos of Rachmaninov, which are wholly reflective of her mood. The comparisons with Wuthering Heights – another tale of passion between two people that’s ill advised and brings only misery – are possible to make, but the resolution is entirely different. The film’s called Brief Encounter for a reason. Laura and Alex never go beyond their stolen Thursdays together, and the affair ends when the Doctor takes a job in Johannesburg, giving every impression of fleeing the country rather than letting their relationship develop beyond something they can control.

Also worthy of note is the way the affair develops, from nothing and entirely based on a chance encounter. It’s a sentiment never overly stated, the randomness of life and the way it’s filled with moments like these. What matters is how they’re acted upon, the decisions by Laura and Alec ultimately to suppress their desires and go back to their normal lives. The film’s ending may appear downbeat; it’s easy to imagine a twenty first century picture finishing on the couple giving up their past lives because ‘they’re made for each other’, yet real life isn’t like the movies and Laura and Alec’s parting has the whiff of authenticity. Neither’s a bad person. Both have family commitments, not to mention the fact they love their spouses and children.

Trevor Howard’s career broke on his performance as Alec. He spent the rest of his acting life trying to live the part down, but in hindsight had the happy record of looking back on major roles in the top two British films of the 20th century. But this is Celia Johnson’s picture. Her narration – my copy of the Carlton DVD release features her quietly desperate voice on the menu; it’s really haunting – is just lovely, delivering all the misery and hysteria that her face only rarely conveys. It’s a performance that is surprisingly unsexy. Again, almost impossible to imagine now, but her affair is restricted to passionate kisses. No clothes come off. Neither is she the kind of beguiling beauty that one imagines, though when she breaks into a smile her entire face lights up.

The town scenes were filmed in Beaconsfield, whilst Carnforth Station doubled as Milford Junction as it was on the main line and shots of real expresses powering through could be filmed. The cafe, the film’s pivotal set, was filmed in a studio, and allowed supporting players Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey to blossom. Holloway’s good natured station master is a treat and plays beautifully against the cafe manager, with Carey affecting graces and sticking to rules in running a tight ship.

Brief Encounter is a wonderful piece of work, acted sublimely and directed perfectly by Lean, who makes it look so natural as though he simply pointed the camera at his performers and let them do the rest. There’s just one scene that lapses into outright fantasy (Laura imagining a glamorous life for Alec and herself); the rest feels organic and so unforced that it’s possible to get the impression the characters ignored the script and started taking the film in the direction they wanted it to go. But that’s great art, and that’s life. As Alec and Laura spend their last, gloomy minutes together in the cafe, they’re interrupted by one of the latter’s gossipy friends. The moment’s shattered. That final kiss never happens. It’s one final tragedy in a film filled with them.

Brief Encounter: *****

This Happy Breed (1944)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 29 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This Happy Breed was the second collaboration between Noel Coward and David Lean. Their first, In Which we Serve, featured Coward as very much the senior partner, co-directing with Lean, the latter taking on the more technical side of the job and the editing process. Two years down the line and Lean was fully in control, adapting Coward’s play with the latter even being gazumphed in the role of Frank Gibbons, the lead part he’d taken on the stage, by Robert Newton.

In many ways, This Happy Breed doesn’t square well with our perceptions of the patrician Coward. Yet the flamboyant wit came from lowly roots, brought up in Teddington, and his play is a kind of paean to the indomitable spirit of the working classes. This is channelled in the film, Lean’s first in colour. It’s about the Gibbons, a family settling into their new Clapham home in 1919, through to their departure in 1939. The head is Frank, returning from World War I to settle back into a normal working life. He likes a tipple, especially with his neighbour and war comrade, Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway), but he also has a nice line in earthy wisdom, for instance when dismissing his son’s leaning towards Socialism as a symptom of attempts to seek a better world that will always be undermined by basic human nature. John Mills takes a supporting role as Bob’s son, in love with Frank’s daughter, Queenie (Kay Walsh), and forging a career with the Royal Navy.

Frank’s wife, Ethel, is played by Celia Johnson. A renowned stage actress who was soon to produce her star-making turn in Brief Encounter, Johnson is fantastic as the living personification of the Keep Calm and Carry On ethos. Not exactly a beauty and made up to look appropriately haggard as the lived-in mum of This Happy Breed, Johnson’s performance is just note-perfect. The understated pain she portrayed in Brief Encounter is just as evident here, her saucer-like eyes conveying all the grief and challenge faced by a working class matriarch who’s helpless in the face of her family’s movements.

As Britain recovers slowly from the Great War and slides towards its sequel, the Gibbons keep calm and carry on. They survive the death of one family member, the elopement of a daughter, the tensions inherent in a group of people shoehorned into a house with little diversion but each other’s company. The period detail is wonderful, from the tea service to the new wireless that takes pride of place on the mantelpiece.

There’s an impression of Lean that because he often enough got to work with the best of cast and crew, great films were made almost in spite of him, as if all he had to do was point the camera in the right direction and the various talents around him filled in the great art. The stage origins of the material are clear enough in the way most of This Happy Breed takes place in the Gibbons’ home, but there’s plenty of time for nice little directorial touches that prove Lean’s abilities. A parade of battalions returning from World War I is a collage of different coloured uniforms and triumphal marching music, only for the camera to distance itself from the images and sounds, focusing instead on a cenotaph. Later, the conveying to the Gibbons of their son’s death happens off screen, the camera remaining discretely in the living room and instead picking up the incongruous sounds of the big band music on the radio and kids playing outside, as though it would be unconscionable to intrude on their grief.

It’s a lovely film, worth sticking with through a slow start as the narrative steadily immerses us in the main characters. This Happy Breed also lives on in the theatres, as a run in 2011 starring Dean Lennox Kelly demonstrates. Both the play and film offer us glimpses into a British society that barely exists any longer, such is the effect of two world wars, political shifts and the passing of time.

This Happy Breed: ****