Powell & Pressburger | Programme Notes

Delve deeper into the dreamworlds of British cinema’s most remarkable collaborators

Rose Butler

26 Jan 24

The greatest directorial partnership in film history, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger gave a much-needed jolt of expressionistic flamboyance to the landscape of British cinema. While the quintessentially English Powell and the European sophisticate Pressburger may, at first, have made for an unlikely duo, their contrasting sensibilities would combine harmoniously in an extraordinary range of films. From pastoral idylls like A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going! to stylised erotic fantasias Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes – both shot in dazzling Technicolor by virtuoso cinematographer Jack Cardiff – their films remain some of the most remarkable and visionary masterworks ever committed to celluloid. With champions like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and continued revived critical interest worldwide, they now find generations of new admirers.

Today, their films are celebrated not only for their technical accomplishment and visual daring, but also for their willingness to take risks and push against the prevailing attitudes of their time. This is particularly true of the films they helmed during their critical and commercial heyday, from 1941 to 1948 – an era bookended by two Oscar-winning films: 49th Parallel and The Red Shoes. During these years, they jointly wrote, produced and directed eight films that are considered among the most ambitious, important works of British cinema – though issues relating to their appeal to high art, their use of dream or fantasy narratives, and their sometimes complex, inconsistent narratives meant that a critical consensus took some time to coalesce. This season of films at Picturehouse celebrates five of these masterworks across February and March.

Like many other war films of the time, A Matter of Life and Death contained strong fantastic elements, but whilst these were normally cosy, reassuring bucolic visions, here forces within the hereafter – daringly represented by Americans(!) – want the hero to die and not get his happily ever after. Powell and Pressburger's next two films were less expansive: A Canterbury Tale was notably made more economically in black and white, while I Know Where I'm Going!, with its central narrative focus on the emotional turmoil of a woman torn between passion and stability, strongly recalls David Lean's Brief Encounter.

I Know Where I'm Going! highlights Powell and Pressburger's commitment to providing prominent and interesting roles for women, continued in the two final films from their classic period, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Both are highly eroticised films, exposing the pressure on women to confirm within specific social groups and industries; the desire to escape and break free from restrictive bourgeois conventions is expressed here with boldness and imagination, brought to life by music from Brian Easdale and the incomparable cinematography of Jack Cardiff.

After disagreements over the production of The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger moved away from Rank Studios, whom they had worked with for several years. Finding themselves increasingly at the whims of international financiers, they would bend their visions more and more to appease these external forces – only a handful of their later collaborations would match the thematic and artistic mastery of their earlier works.

– Rose Butler, Programmer


A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
From 03 Feb   |   Book Now

After miraculously surviving a jump from his burning plane, RAF pilot Peter Carter encounters the American radio operator to whom he has just delivered his dying wishes.  But when a messenger from the afterlife arrives to correct the bureaucratic error that spared his life, Peter must mount a fierce defence for his right to stay on earth, climbing a fantastical wide staircase to stand trial in a strikingly modernist black and white hereafter.

Intended to smooth tensions between wartime allies, this is a richly humanist story, making a case for the transcendent power of love. In the ravaged aftermath of World War II, a surge of cinematic productions emerged, exemplified by titles like A Matter of Life and Death, whose themes resonated with the collective sentiment of a population grappling with the profound loss of loved ones during the war.

Black Narcissus
From 10 Feb   |   Book Now

Written, produced and directed by Powell and Pressburger, 1947's Black Narcissus revolves around growing tensions in a small convent of Anglican sisters, living in a remote palace on an isolated mountain in the Himalayas. The palace is full of erotic murals and artwork, and is managed by a handsome middle-aged Englishman, who is a source of attraction for the sisters.

A richly told tale of eroticism and desire, the film received notable acclaim upon its release, with Jack Cardiff and Alfred Junge winning the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Art Director respectively. Shot primarily at Pinewood Studios, Powell became fascinated by the idea of filming as much on-set as possible, and the film is known for its extensive use of matte paintings and large-scale landscape paintings to suggest the sprawling landscapes of the Himalayas.

The Red Shoes (1948)
From 17 Feb   |   Book Now

Powell and Pressburger's follow-up to Black Narcissus would become the best-known film of their partnership, and is often considered one of the greatest films of all time. The Red Shoes follows Victoria Page (dancer-turned-actor Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballerina who joins the world-renowned Ballet Lermontov, owned by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who tests her dedication to ballet by making her choose between her career and a blossoming romance with composer Julian Craster (Maris Goring)

A thematically rich film, exploring a performer's conflict between their art and personal life, The Red Shoes has been a source of inspiration for numerous contemporary filmmakers, from Brian de Palma to Martin Scorsese. The Red Shoes ballet, its 17-minute centrepiece, remains one of the most dazzling sequences ever captured on film.

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
From 24 Feb   |   Book Now

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's stunningly photographed comedy, romance flourishes in the most unlikely of places: the bleak and moody Scottish Hebrides. Wendy Hiller stars as a wilful young woman who travels to these remote isles to marry a rich lord. Stranded on Mull by stormy weather, she encounters a handsome naval officer (Roger Livesey) who soon begins to thwart her carefully laid out plans.

Powell and Pressburger weave their course of true love through flashes of surrealism, a life-threatening whirlpool and an ancient curse, disarming and enchanting us in equal measure. This is a film where the smallest moments of intimacy count the most, as they build quietly into something altogether overwhelming. By the closing credits, we are left breathless – and desperate to book the next night's train and ferry to Mull.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
From 02 March   |   Book Now

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's beloved classic is a profoundly personal journey to Powell's birthplace of Kent. Set amid the turmoil of the Second World War, A Canterbury Tale follows three modern-day incarnations of Chaucer's pilgrims – a melancholy "landgirl", a plainspoken American GI, and a resourceful British sergeant – who are all waylaid in the English countryside en route to the mythical town and forced to solve a peculiar village crime.

With its glorification of the bucolic Kent countryside and attempts to define a spiritual vision of English identity, A Canterbury Tale is a sophisticated form of wartime reassurance, presenting a beguiling moral alternative to the harsh realities of the ongoing war.

Looking for a Fresh Take?

Writers from our U25 writing space Fresh Takes also got to share their thoughts on four films from this collection of Powell and Pressburger masterpieces. Be sure to check them out.


Powell & Pressburger comes to Picturehouse from 02 February. Book tickets, explore our special local events, read reviews from our Fresh Takes critics and more at picturehouses.com/p&p.