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The first big Criterion Blu-ray box set of the year is a technical and cultural marvel, though these four David Lean pictures aren't exactly mandatory viewing....
Criterion / 407 Minutes / 1942-1945 / Unrated / Street Date: March 27, 2012
Criterion had been teasing a David Lean box set for years before it formally announced this month's release of David Lean Directs Noel Coward, a quartet of films that the inimitable director made with the notorious author and playwright. When word first came in, I was beside myself: Not only would these early Lean works be given a high-definition bump (a treat for cineastes of all types and creeds), but the studio would quite likely investigate each picture with commentaries, interviews, and other ephemera that would add clarity to the pre-Dickens phase of the filmmaker's illustrious career.
Upon experiencing this high-definition set, however, something became unfortunately true for me: These are minor films. As cultural and cinematic relics, they unequivocally deserve a release like this one - if just for the time capsule - but In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Brief Encounter (1945) don't hold a candle to Lean's later works. There are flickers of Zhivago-esque forbidden love and its tortures in Brief Encounter (Lean said many times that it might be his most personal picture), but these four movies feel maudlin and stilted in ways they shouldn't.
What it comes down to - and what makes this box set eventually mesmerizing as a lesson in film history - is that with this collection of motion pictures, Lean was learning how to make movies. He had edited Pygmalion to grand success, and would eventually become arguably the greatest British director of his generation, but even with Coward's cultural import, these play as works in progress and not standalone cinematic gems. The comedy of This Happy Breed, the wartime perils of In Which We Serve, the preternatural precocity of Blithe Spirit: These are elements that intrigue, to be sure, but never coalesce into legitimately convincing narratives. They spit and sputter, but never earn their David Lean stamps of approval.
But as is the case with so many great film directors, sub-standard David Lean films nevertheless stand tall among their contemporaries, and in this regard, David Lean Directs Noel Coward is a screaming success. I'm glad the studio went with a full-fledged Criterion Blu-ray set and not an Eclipse DVD collection, and there's no doubt that Criterion enthusiasts will approach this hefty, sleek box set with Christmas-morning fervor, but even though David Lean Directs Noel Coward is a historically imperative piece of work, as a movie box set, it's not exactly the kind of thing you'll return to over and over again: It's more important than it is good.