Nuns, land girls, ballet dancers: the paradoxes of Powell and Pressburger’s women

In their best films, Powell and Pressburger often showcased female characters with modern attitudes and gutsy ambition.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
How do you know what the best place is for a young girl? Are you a young girl?The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have a complicated relationship with women. On the one hand, their work is steeped in a nostalgic vision of British identity which carries with it an inherent political conservatism. By placing stock in traditional values – decency, manners and continuity – the filmmakers would appear to also be advocating for traditional gender roles. It’s true that women who push boundaries in Powell and Pressburger’s films are often tamed or otherwise contained – married, engaged or dead – by the conclusion.

Yet while this pattern could be interpreted as a desire to punish or control rebellious female behaviour, it could also be read as a kind of truth telling, a reflection of the reality of life during a period in which women faced limited options. The tendency of Powell and Pressburger films – particularly during their peak years from the mid-1940s to the early-1950s – to lean into the coded feminine forms of ‘women’s pictures’ (such as melodrama, musicals and dance films) adds to this uncertainty. Their plots may tell one story, but their aesthetics gesture towards another. That stiff upper lip might just be wearing scarlet lipstick.

This contradiction is captured perfectly in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a film which appears at first glance to be a wistful celebration of British military prowess and Empire, but which soon reveals itself to be a nuanced treatise on masculinity, friendship and ageing. It follows the titular colonel Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over several decades from the Boer war to the Second World War, as he progresses from arrogant war hero to outmoded symbol of the military establishment. Along the way, Clive’s assumptions are challenged by a long friendship with German soldier Theo (Anton Walbrook) and by three women – a governess, a battlefield nurse and a military driver – who he encounters at different stages of his life.

Deborah Kerr as Edith Hunter with Theo (Anton Walbrook) in The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

In tour-de-force supporting performances, each of these women is played with pristine precision by a 21-year-old Deborah Kerr. By embodying three women at different points – a headstrong governess in imperial Prussia, a romantic nurse working at the front during the First World War and a resourceful driver working through the London Blitz – Kerr offers a study of the evolving position and attitudes of women during the first decades of the 20th century. Crucially, too, Kerr’s characters illustrate how, even when restricted by social convention, women find ways to exert power and influence events. The transformation of Clive over the course of the film is facilitated at least in part by the women around him, who challenge his blinkered worldview.

This dynamic is encapsulated by a memorable early scene, which takes place in a Berlin beer hall in the early 1900s. Clive and British governess Edith have only recently met, when the young soldier expresses surprise that a “girl” might be interested in politics. “How do you know what the best place is for a young girl? Are you a young girl?” asks Edith witheringly, before continuing:

“You see, while you men have been fighting, we women have been thinking. Think for yourself Mr Candy, what careers are there open to a woman? She can get married… but supposing she doesn’t want to get married? She can go and be a governess. But what does a governess know, Mr Candy? Nothing, I can assure you. And what can she teach the children who are in her charge? Very little except good manners…. Did you learn that in South Africa, Mr Candy? My brother told me good manners cost us… 6,000 men killed and 20,000 wounded. And two years of war. When with a little common sense and bad manners, there would have been no war at all.”

Wendy Hiller as Joan Webster in I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)Restoration by BFI National Archive/The Film Foundation in association with ITV/Park Circus

Kerr’s meaty multi-role assignment in Colonel Blimp is a demonstration of how Powell and Pressburger often delivered career-defining roles to their favourite performers. Kerr’s parts in Blimp were originally written for Wendy Hiller, who was unable to take the job due to pregnancy. Instead, Hiller would go on to deliver a charismatic performance in I Know Where I’m Going (1945) as Joan, a determined English social climber whose best-laid plans are upended when she becomes stranded on a Scottish island.

One of the three central characters of A Canterbury Tale (1944) is spirited land girl Alison (Sheila Sim) who, like Edith, runs rings around the men she meets with her moral certainty and historical knowledge. Both Alison and Joan have their stubborn worldviews challenged by quasi-magical encounters, and by the end of their stories both are also facing a curtailment to their independence in the form of marriage. Yet the same could be said of their fictional peers regardless of gender, across the Powell and Pressburger universe. The idea that a human might find themselves humbled by an encounter with something greater than themselves, with magic, faith, love or nature, is arguably the defining motif of the filmmakers’ work.

In The Red Shoes (1948), that larger, awe-inspiring force is art. A large part of that film’s success lies in the casting of an initially reluctant Moira Shearer as its ballerina heroine, with Shearer’s rare combination of dance virtuosity and instinctive acting ability serving as a central anchor for the film’s visual experiments. Positioning as it does Shearer’s Vicky Page as a woman forced to confront a perennial feminist struggle – how can female artists balance their need to create with the gendered demands of love and domestic life? – The Red Shoes is also open to interpretation as a proto-feminist fable.

Moira Shearer as Vicky Page in The Red Shoes (1948)Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with the BFI/The Film Foundation/ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

By casting a real ballerina rather than an actor/dancer in the role, Powell and Pressburger ensure that Page’s artistry is unquestionable, adding weight to that central dilemma. The Red Shoes serves as a showcase for Shearer, and Powell would go on to provide similarly memorable opportunities for her elsewhere, as the dancing mechanical doll in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and an ill-fated wannabe film star in Peeping Tom (1960). Both of those characters meet grisly ends – the doll dismembered with detached head still blinking, the starlet bundled in a trunk – but not before Shearer has been able to show us what she can do, stealing both of those films in the process.

Shearer’s roles demonstrate how even when a female character is ‘punished’ by a film’s narrative, she can still retain a sense of power through the luminescence of an indelible performance. Another example of this appears in Black Narcissus (1947), a gleefully overripe melodrama following a group of nuns’ attempts to establish a school in a remote Himalayan village. Black Narcissus’s heroine is Deborah Kerr’s self-disciplined Sister Superior, but although Kerr’s performance is strong, it’s Kathleen Byron’s unstable Sister Ruth who dominates the show with a captivatingly clammy invocation of a woman driven mad by repression.

Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) applying red lipstick in Black Narcissus (1947)ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Black Narcissus is ostensibly a cautionary tale with a conservative message about the dangers of female desire, but by accompanying that moral fable with excessive Technicolor visuals and indulgent emotions, Powell and Pressburger suggest that they themselves are as vulnerable to the same weaknesses as poor Sister Ruth.

Like the later Gone to Earth (1950), Black Narcissus explores female sexuality and repression against hyperreal backgrounds of natural beauty, using lush imagery to further draw out the heightened feelings associated with melodrama. The spectacle seduces the viewer, placing them in immediate identification with Byron’s character. To reinforce this perspective, the filmmakers gift her with Black Narcissus’s most memorable moments. A scene in which Byron hypnotically applies red lipstick, as if in a trance, bristles with irresistible sensuality. Sister Ruth is doomed – and so, perhaps, are we.

So much of how we interpret a film is dependent on the subjectivity we bring to it. Over the decades Powell and Pressburger have attracted many distinguished female fans, including many prominent women artists who have publicly cited the filmmakers as an influence, including the likes of Kate Bush, Greta Gerwig, Sally Potter, Joanna Hogg and Tilda Swinton, among others.

Revisiting these films myself for this BFI season, I’ve felt similarly drawn to this work. Powell and Pressburger’s relationship to women is complicated, but people are complicated too. The ambiguity that lies at the heart of their cinematic world creates space for interpretation and, in doing so, invites us to come closer, to project ourselves into those gorgeous images and to read between the lines. Our fandom is perhaps the most powerful endorsement for the potential to read Powell and Pressburger’s women through an empowering lens.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).

The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December.

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