The technicolor mastery of the films of Powell and Pressburger is legendary. It is a hallmark of their oeuvre, a signpost of their significance. Add to that a mastery of technical, dramatic film construction and you find yourself in the presence of twentieth century icons. Such is the nature that surrounds this directorial duo who rose to prominence in the forties and fifties. Following hot on the heels of Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), they adapted The Tales of Hoffman (1951), based on Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical opera. Building on the musical and fantastical themes of these earlier films, it arrived in an era that can be noted for its high output of musical films.
The 1950s was an era that saw the stage and screen collide and collude with great force. Now, after undergoing a complete restoration, The Tales of Hoffman returns to screens in re-release, allowing audiences to become (re)acquainted with an imaginative and opulent operatic adaptation. Intertwined in spectacular fashion are three tales of love and loss, all told in a Nuremburg tavern by the lovelorn eponymous hero, Hoffmann. During the entr’acte of a ballet in which his one true love, dancer Stella, is performing, Hoffamann recounts his three tales to a rapt crowd: Olympia the dancing automaton; Giulietta the fiery courtesan; Antonia the consumptive soprano. What follows are vignettes bred purely in the realm of fantasy. Ballads, ballet and sheer beauty exist in every frame.
It brings the infamous opera to its full realisation and what still manages to stun to this day is the sheer power of the operatics. The songs have been translated from the original French into a more digestible English and still the poetry remains. Yet, the most rewarding part of this opera-cum-film is the sets. The technical artistry here is still awe-inspiring. In our current state of digital mania, it is a relief and treat for the eyes to be able to drink in sets and costumes that remind viewers just how much sheer craftsmanship was put into films of this scale and nature. It is a testament not only to the original material but also to its creators that this film still, after nearly 65 years, feels completely awe-inspiring and fresh. Rarely do we have adaptations of operas brought to our screens today, excepting Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (2012) which is the nearest we get to opera in its scale and presentation. Are the no longer feasible? Too expensive? No built-in audience? Whatever the reason, The Tales of Hoffmann has aged beautifully and reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to move through the screen and find yourself happily transported to another world.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem