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A recent Italian book on the films of David Lean is called Colour and Dust, and with an amplification or two the phrase offers a pretty good description of his later work. The colour is mainly orange, and a lot of the dust is sand, especially in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More generally, of course, the phrase evokes the director of swirling epics, a sort of Cecil B. DeMille with taste, imperial godfather to the Star Wars movies and much of the work of Steven Spielberg. There is nothing wrong with this evocation except that it invites us to forget Lean’s earlier, quieter or darker films, which notably include Brief Encounter (1945), a black and grey masterpiece, and Oliver Twist (1948), an extraordinary conversion of Dickens into some sort of German Expressionist. Another recent book on Lean, by Gene Phillips, is called Beyond the Epic; and we might think ‘Before the Epic’ would also be a good title.

The retrospective of Lean’s work showing at BFI Southbank in June and July covers the whole career, which seems to fall into what we might call shifts. The Noël Coward shift comprises In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter; the Dickens shift is Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist; and the epic shift consists of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984). This arrangement leaves a sequence of five films unaccounted for: The Passionate Friends (1948), Madeleine (1950), The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954) and Summertime (1955). At this distance they look like a shift between shifts, the work of a man who doesn’t yet know that colour and dust are going to be his thing.

I’ve also left Ryan’s Daughter (1970) out of the list, a quiet movie that mistook itself for an epic, but it does confirm the irreversible movement towards size and sweep. Rumour has it that Lean was so upset by Pauline Kael’s review of the film (‘Gush made respectable by millions of dollars tastefully wasted’) that he didn’t return to directing for fourteen years. This seems more like a fantasy about the power of criticism than an insight into Lean’s career, and in fact he made a television film about Captain Cook in this period as well as preparing for a finally scuttled remake of Mutiny on the Bounty; but there is no doubt that he felt he had got something wrong and that he didn’t like being wrong. It is also true that he had earlier managed to keep going in spite of Kael’s dislike of Dr Zhivago (‘stately, respectable and dead’). When he died (in 1991) Lean was working on a film based on Conrad’s Nostromo, certainly an opportunity for plenty of Latin colour and silver dust.

Summertime is one of the middle period films I hadn’t seen, an elegant and slow movie about the Italian romance of a no longer young American woman played by Katharine Hepburn. It was shot entirely on location in Venice, and Rossano Brazzi as the love interest comes a distinctly poor second to the city. Lean and H.E. Bates had taken an Arthur Laurents play and reworked it thoroughly until it began to resemble an exotic replay of Brief Encounter. It’s hard to tell whether Lean was harking back to an old success, pursuing certain obsessive themes or just piling up images he liked, but certainly plenty of the old material is there: locomotives, railway stations, farewells, interruptions, repression. There is something both astringent and moving about Hepburn’s decision to leave Italy and the affair behind. ‘I’ll always love you,’ Brazzi says with a reasonable show of sincerity. Hepburn says: ‘Yes, if I go.’ She is leaving in order to save what they briefly had, and while it’s impossible to feel sorry for her – she is too sharp and stylish and in control for that – there is a real intensity in the difficulty of her decision. Even people who know just what they are doing can suffer while they are doing it.

The train and the station make us think not only of Brief Encounter but of De Sica’s wonderful Stazione Termini, also known as Indiscretion (1953), with Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift, where another American woman has an Italian romance and leaves it behind. But De Sica is tender where Lean is austere, even though Lean did later say he had put more of himself in Summertime than any other film he had ever made.

Brief Encounter, however, is something else again. As Richard Dyer points out in his excellent BFI book on the film, it is the awkwardness of the main characters, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, their touching, strangling inability either to deny their feelings or fully act on them, that makes them so compelling. This is not the luminous, high-temperature romance of the Italian movie, and neither Johnson nor Howard can compete with Hepburn in self-possession – indeed who could? But the sheer misery in the ordinariness of these lives, a grand passion conducted in and out of the dingy buffet bar of a small railway station, is magnetic. Johnson especially is remarkable, telling her story in voice-over and impeccably polite and measured middle-class diction, staring solidly at the camera with eyes full of daily despair. ‘I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.’ she says. She means such violent things as falling helplessly in love. The narrative is beautifully framed by her return to her dull and kindly husband and bratty children. She thinks the story through for us, picturing her husband as the one person to whom she might tell such a tale, knowing he is the one person she can’t share this one with. At the end it is possible that he has understood the whole thing without her telling him a word. He grasps her terrible sadness at least, and he understands that she has been a long way from him – in her thoughts, certainly, and perhaps in more than her thoughts. He thanks her for coming back to him, and the movie ends.

Most critics, rightly enough, see Brief Encounter as a very English movie; but they also tend to see it as apology for marriage and family life, since Johnson and Howard don’t consummate or continue their affair. This seems to me a very strange reading, since in spite of the delicate ending the film is all about the violent perturbed happiness that wipes out the very idea of marriage and children: the lovers separate not because they have chosen virtue, but because they are ashamed of behaving badly and do not want to snare their love in shame. If they could run off together they would, and even as it is, the affair they scarcely had will make the rest of their lives seem poor.

One of Lean’s identifying marks as a director is to leave his actors and story alone – visually, I mean, since he appears to have been a tyrannical perfectionist on the set. They are to do what they can without any fuss or trickery from him – this is what I meant by speaking of his austerity. The result is that the films often have dead spots where nothing is happening unless the actor is making it happen, and this explains why Hepburn keeps threatening to escape from Summertime and why the submerged but always interesting Johnson is so perfect in Brief Encounter. It also explains why Alec Guinness is such a godsend to Lean. Guinness always seems to be doing the job in hand with exemplary skill while at the same time doing several private jobs of his own – as if the eight parts he played in Kind Hearts and Coronets were some sort of literalisation of the kind of thing he was always up to. In Lean’s films he appears as Fagin, as Zhivago’s half-brother, as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, as dotty Professor Godbole in Passage to India – curious to think he had already become Obi-Wan Kenobi by then. I’d forgotten his part in Lawrence of Arabia, but there he is again, this time as an Arab prince, perfectly plausible in a rather specialised movie sense of the term, and also perfectly his own poised multiple self.

Lawrence of Arabia is at the other end of the scale from Brief Encounter, and is certainly the most interesting of the later films. The very idea of the ordinary disappears, swallowed up in the empty spaces of history and geography. Only the extraordinary survives. Any interior scene, a conversation among two or more people, becomes curiously comforting, even if the content of the talk is threatening. It’s as if human society had briefly recomposed itself. In a famous scene that will stand for many others, Omar Sharif appears in the desert literally out of nowhere. First he is nothing, then a dot at the back of the frame, then a moving speck, then an indistinguishable figure in a heat haze, then a man riding a camel. He kills Peter O’Toole’s companion, has a conversation with O’Toole, vanishes the way he came. For a moment there were three people together in this otherwise unpopulated world. Quite a crowd, even if one of them was dead.

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