Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 19 December 2008
Source Kino DVD
Two surprises lie in store in a viewing of A Cottage On Dartmoor. One is the discovery that an unknown British silent film (to me) should prove to be such a delight, a finely-crafted and visually inventive example of silent cinema at its height. The other surprise is that this should be the work of Anthony Asquith. Asquith, son of a British Prime Minister (as everyone likes to mention, in order to stress his upper-class origins), is known today as a solid practitioner of mainstream products from the days when Britain actually had a properly functioning film industry. There was an obvious limitation to Asquith, ever faithful to his script and lacking in any particular stylistic signature, as a filmmaker (call him a metteur en scène rather than an auteur), but there’s still a lot of pleasure to be got from the stiff-upper-lip heroics of his wartime drama The Way To The Stars or the exquisite theatrics of The Importance of Being Earnest or The Browning Version.
But there was another, or, rather, an earlier side to Asquith. A recent article by Henry K. Miller in Sight & Sound (October 2008) offers a fascinating insight into the cinephile milieu of 1920s Oxford that Asquith was part of. Among his early claims to fame were defending and winning an Oxford Union debate on cinema, and at the age of 22 writing the first article to appear in the famed left-wing weekly The New Statesman that treated film as a serious art form. On that occasion he wrote about Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and, notwithstanding the six months he spent in Hollywood as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ houseguest or the lowly and mundane jobs he started out with in the UK film industry, it was this kind of artistically ambitious cinema that he was interested in, that of the French impressionists, German expressionists, and Soviets. In this line he was also a founding member of the influential London Film Society (along with the likes of H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John and John Maynard Keynes!) that did so much to promote the avant-garde film of the day. A Cottage On Dartmoor doesn’t really bear any relationship to the literary adaptations of Asquith’s later years; rather it’s a very clear product of a fascination with (and very clearly influenced by) the German and Russian filmmakers of the twenties.
The core of the film’s story is a melodrama: in an upmarket London hairdresser’s, teeming with employees, barber Joe is in love with manicurist Sally. Sally is barely aware of the intensity of Joe’s feelings and in any case is more interested in customer Harry, a farmer who owns a farm on Dartmoor (hence the film’s title). As Sally and Harry’s relationship develops, Joe’s jealousy starts spiralling out of control—a dangerous situation with Joe frantically stropping the razor as Harry waits in the barber’s chair…
But Asquith structures this story as a flashback within the present-day frame of Joe’s escape from Dartmoor Prison. These opening scenes push expressionist style to the fore. The dark silhouettes of stark leafless trees stand out against a louring sky—the mood is gloomy, threatening, sombre. Joe literally drops, animal-like, into the frame from above. All Asquith’s set-ups work to underline Joe’s status as a hunted animal, fearful and on the run; a prime example is one shot where Joe approaches, running, from the far distance, advancing to the camera until all we see are his legs, splashing in the water in the foreground, before continuing his run off-screen.
Joe is driven by the fear of those in pursuit of him from behind, but also by a desire for vengeance. Asquith directs Joe to the object of his vengeance – Sally and her husband Harry, now living in a farmhouse cottage nearby – and moves us to this new setting with a visual link, cutting from Joe drinking water desperately from a stream and Sally’s child playing in the bathtub water. There’s a Gothic quality to the imagery, with mother and child, bathed in a light that sets them off against the surrounding shadows, contrasted with the monster-like qualities of Joe, staring with glowering face at the distant cottage or, with arm out-stretched, slowly slinking into the frame once he’s inside the cottage.
It’s at this point that Sally recognises him and with her one cry of “Joe!” transports us back to the past story that will take up most of the film. Here, seven minutes into the film and with the first intertitle, Asquith smoothly and succinctly cuts straight to the clean-cut if love-stricken Joe of the past, at work in the hairdresser’s and turning in response to Sally’s call to him then.
Joe’s romance is a one-sided one, more of a romantic obsession. Sally’s friendly with him but Joe’s blind to her lack of romantic interest in him, just as he’s blind to the way others are aware of and are observing his behaviour. In fact, Sally happily flirts with one customer and shows an obvious interest in another (the farmer), which leads to rather comic displays of Joe’s jealousy—he deliberately slaps a hot towel on the customer’s face and for the farmer adjusts the barber’s chair with rough jerks.
When Sally invites him back to her boarding house – she likes him enough to get over her annoyance over his petulant displays of jealousy – Joe sits in the drawing room, glaring with barely suppressed rage at the presence of the other boarders. But when Sally and he are finally on their own, she is then in constant flight from him, flitting to the mantelpiece for cigarettes and sitting at the piano to play. Asquith shoots Joe stretching out his hands towards Sally’s back as if the intention is more to murder than to love. The whole evening is a blackly comic romantic disaster of which Joe seems unaware: when Sally closes the front door on him, he leans against it with an enraptured look on his face, while Sally, on the other side of the door, looks tired and thoughtful, then shrugs it all off.
A Cottage On Dartmoor was made at the tail end of the silent period, a fact that the film itself alludes to in the first scene in the hairdresser’s when Joe invites Sally to “the talkies.” It’s certainly a curious effect to be watching a silent film which contains a lengthy sequence of characters (Joe follows Sally and her farmer on a date) watching an early sound film in a cinema. In fact, originally there was a sound recording for this talkie sequence but that’s now lost, yet it’s still fascinating in its own right. Asquith plays up the social comedy of the setting as much as its significance to Joe’s story, concentrating on the variety of different social types and their reactions to what’s happening on the screen (which we never see ourselves). So, there are shots of the orchestra packing up, playing cards and drinking beer once the silent comedy short is replaced by the sound feature while a series of different characters are picked out from the audience—an elderly woman who needs the dialogue repeated through her ear trumpet, two schoolboys who are surprised by the resemblance of the man next to them to Harold Lloyd (this is Asquith himself), an older man that falls asleep, a man more interested in his woman companion than in the talkie, and so forth.
This then segues into a series of violent fantasies on Joe’s part – forcibly kissing Sally, preparing to cut the farmer’s throat with a razor, leaping on him in the cinema – where, cleverly, Asquith’s cuts to audience reactions to the film seem to be reactions to Joe’s fantasies. After the screening, when Asquith cuts from Joe hiding in the shadows outside Sally’s boarding house to a brightly-lit shot of him stropping his razor, this seems at first to be another fantasy. But it proves to be the start of the final sequence of the flashback with its inevitable violent outcome, which Asquith narrates with a succession of Gance-like rapid cuts, culminating in imagery of a fraying rope, cannon blasting, and a flash of red.
Joe’s fate is rather set with the return to the sombre gloom-ridden tone of the frame story, but this only emphasises the strength of Asquith’s visual imagination at work in this film. The thematic climax of Joe’s repentance and Sally’s forgiveness now leaves no place for Joe in the story. When Joe pulls out from the clothes he’s been given to aid him in his escape a photograph of Sally in front of a tree in blossom, Asquith contrasts that sardonically with the dark silhouette of a leafless Dartmoor tree, a symbol of Joe’s own blighted life. But in the end, Joe is granted his own epiphanic release from his torments with the film’s final, corresponding shot of a tree in bloom, a refutation of the barren landscape of Dartmoor.