There’s a special place in my heart for features that are one-of-a-kind, that use their own unique blend of techniques or styles to strike out and do something fresh. Sometimes that freshness is just in the aesthetic, other times it’s in the plot and themes too, but I’ll tend to take freshness where ever I can get it.
I’ve often conjured with making a list of these distinctive films. I could start with the original Tron, The Dark Crystal, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Blue, The Five Obstructions, Forbidden Zone, Russian Ark, Rubber, Sean Meredith’s retelling of Dante’s Inferno – and I’d welcome any further suggestions that you may have.
Somewhere on that list would have to be Reginald Mills‘ extraordinary Tales of Beatrix Potter.
This was the only film Mills directed, his chief career being in film editing. It is likely that it was his work in cutting two films by The Archers, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, that won him the director’s seat for Tales.
What makes the film so different? It’s very concept is singular, I believe, being an original ballet, devised by Sir. Frederick Ashton not for the stage, but for the screen.* Add to this that the majority of the characters are animals, and are performed by Royal Ballet dancers in full animal suits modeled very nicely on the character and style of Potter’s illustrations.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s more unusualness to come.
The film’s first big surprise comes around the six minute mark. We’ve seen our first dance sequence, with Mrs. Tiggywinkle the hedgehog, when the camera finds a portrait on her wall. It pushes in and reveals a signature: Beatrix. At this point we cut, and the music stops.
And now we’re in the first of a couple of dramatic, dance-lite vignettes that will dramatise the life of the young Ms. Potter. In these scenes she’s some years younger than when she became afamous author and illustrator, but her imagination is fully formed.
The sudden loss of music is dramatic, and it underscores (if you’ll pardon the irony) the change in tone most strikingly. In this juxtaposition we’re hit with one of the film’s key ideas, a contrast between the Victorian life of Beatrix Potter, and her vibrant, musical, colourful, dancing fantasias of charming animals at adventure.
I’m no connoisseur of ballet but I’m sure it’s safe to say that the dancers are concerned less with technical precision here than with storytelling and characterisation. Much as Potter used animal types to conjure up people types, so the choreography will do something similar with bold actions and direct interpretations of spirit and mood in dance.
Some of the film is off-kilter: a live action cat causes some real danger for mice played by dancers in costume; the scale of several animals is somewhat off, particularly to their surroundings, while others are more accurately sized; in one horrific moment, two romancing pigs are surprised by the sudden revelation of pork sausages.
I’ve don’t remember having any nightmares about this film, but I’ve always remembered the impression it left on me, watching it on TV in the mid-1970s. Seeing it again, beautifully restored, in the correct aspect ratio and with the benefit of some 30-odd years of growing up, it still had some dreamy, direct power on my imagination.
The new release marks the 40th anniversary of the films release. It comes as a paired Blu-ray and DVD in the same pack, though it’s the Blu-ray I have been reviewing. The transfer is detailed and sensitive to the original print, and in the moments of most dramatic cinematography, looks very good indeed. It’s a shame to see the film cut from natural light and real exteriors to stage-bound fake exteriors, but there’s a fair amount of real outside shooting, and a lot of well-lit stage interiors too.
The soundtrack, which was almost exclusively a musical score of previously existing compositions newly arranged by John Lanchberry, is very well presented. What little sound FX work there is sits nicely, and the all important shifts to silence really do go to silence.
There are no special features or supplements on the discs, which is a shame. For example a ballet expert might have been able to shed some light on many of the details otherwise lost on a typical film viewer. Mr. Mills and Sir. Ashton are no longer with us, but the film’s designer and co-writer Christine Edzard could have been called upon, perhaps, for an interview.
Tales of Beatrix Potter is nothing if not cinematic. Recommended.
*Note that the ballet was later adapted for the stage and performed as a Christmas Tradition by the Royal Ballet. This stage production has also been filmed, by the BBC, and released to disc but I’d warn you away from that one, unless you really are a ballet fan. For the rest of us, Mills film is by far the more attractive proposition.