A Cottage on Dartmoor

The logo comes up before the picture: Pro Patria Films. So Wilfred Owen wasn’t quite such a fashionable poet back in 1929…

A Cottage on Dartmoor is Anthony Asquith’s fourth film, and it’s a set-piece example of how to make a silent movie. Suspense, lucid storytelling, expressive camerawork, and much of the story told through facial expression. It’s about an escaped prisoner who has come to the lonely Dartmoor farm where the woman he loves lives with the man she married. He’s intent on vengeance, and an extended flashback explains why.

A Cottage on Dartmoor

Joe, the prisoner, used to be a hairdresser, and Sally was a manicurist in the same salon. She goes on a date with him, more or less out of pity, and he believes she loves him, so seethes with jealousy when she becomes close to a customer. There’s a good sequence when he stalks them to the cinema, where they’ve gone to see one of the new talkies; Asquith gets a lot of fun out of the spectators, and the contrast in audience behaviour during a silent film and a talkie.

When his girl becomes  engaged to the other man, it’s too much for Joe. He is given the job of shaving the other man, and Asquith produces a virtuoso sequence at least as scary as the shaving sequences in the new Sweeney Todd movie (but less bloody). Joe gets increasingly tense. The razor slips. How deliberate was it? The man is not dead, but Joe ends in Dartmoor Prison. And  now he’s escaped…

It’s a beautifully crafted film, with an excellent sense of lower-middle-class life in the twenties. And it shows what got lost when the talkies took over. Asquith’s next film was Tell England, which I saw at the BFI  a while ago.  The silent movie is clear and sharp in its narrative; the pictures tell the story, and the camera really works for its living. Tell England lets rather stilted dialogue do a lot of the work, and the camera is far less free.

On the DVD with A Cottage on Dartmoor is a not bad documentary, Silent Britain, about the early years of the British film industry. Some tantalising glimpses of a lot of films. It’s very good on the early stuff, but I’d have liked more detain on the twenties. Still, well worth seeing.

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