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Picturing home: Domestic life and modernity in 1940s British film

Picturing home: Domestic life and modernity in 1940s British film

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Picturing home: Domestic life and modernity in 1940s British film

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393 pagine
5 ore
Pubblicato:
Feb 9, 2021
ISBN:
9781526138224
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Picturing home examines the depiction of domestic life in British feature films made and released in the 1940s. It explores how pictorial representations of home onscreen in this period re-imagined modes of address that had been used during the interwar years to promote ideas about domestic modernity. Picturing home provides a close analysis of domestic life as constructed in eight films, contextualising them in relation to a broader, offscreen culture surrounding the suburban home, including magazines, advertisements, furniture catalogues and displays at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. In doing so, it offers a new reading of British 1940s films, which demonstrates how they trod a delicate path balancing prewar and postwar, traditional and modern, private and public concerns.
Pubblicato:
Feb 9, 2021
ISBN:
9781526138224
Formato:
Libro

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Picturing home - Hollie Price

Pete.

Introduction: ‘’Mid pleasures and palaces’

One of my grandfather’s photograph albums evidences some of the social transformations that characterised life in mid-twentieth-century Britain. While a number of photographs indicate disruptions to everyday life – from wartime injuries to postwar service in Egypt and Palestine – a sense of conservative stability is also apparent. In the late 1940s, his parents are pictured in their three-bedroom council house in Cippenham, Slough. In one photograph, his mother, Sarah Ann Price, perches on the edge of an armchair in front of a hearth and with cards arranged on the dresser behind her ( Figure 1 ). Despite the postwar setting, the furnishings are worn-looking and in an interwar style. Next to the photograph, the album quotes two lines from a song popular in wartime.

’Mid pleasures and palaces tho’ we may roam.

Be it e’er so humble, there’s no place like home.

These words articulate the prewar stability of the home to which Grandad hoped to return in the late 1940s. However, this return to the home was also bound up with a sense of a brighter future life anticipated in postwar Britain. Amati, the house in Slough to which my grandparents, Terence and Beryl, moved in 1952, emblematised this dual attitude: the house’s Tudorbethan-style beams, pebble-dashing and the name of their road – Shaggy Calf Lane – emphasised a rural, shared past while it was simultaneously a modern family home complete with bathroom, back garden and garage.

In close proximity to the light industries and evidence of a consumer society developing along the Bath Road since the 1930s, this homely idyll represented a wider sense of suburban compromise: David Matless describes Slough as the ‘archetype of anti-settlement’, suggesting that for preservationists ‘the suburb becomes an English predicament, a site not of pleasant town-and-country blend but an indeterminate place’.¹ As often noted, for intellectuals, the suburb was a site of stagnation, turning inwards and a deeply unmodern construction of private life. Matless notes:

For John Betjeman in his 1937 poem ‘Slough’, this ‘mess they call a town’ was of a different class to the leafy suburbia he would elsewhere hymn. Here food was tinned, nature expelled and futures mortgaged, and wives dyed their hair peroxide. Slough ‘isn’t fit for humans now’, but still people live here, lulled into insensitivity by their sham of a settlement.²

1Sarah Price at home in Cippenham (c.1947)

Perhaps oddly, my grandparents always delighted in repeating ‘come friendly bombs’, evidently not taking such derision too seriously.³ Stemming from the expansion of suburbia in the interwar years and the growth of the middle class, their house was part of a culture in which the home negotiated boundaries between prewar and postwar, traditional and modern, private and public.

This book explores how the depiction of domestic life in British feature films of the period engaged with the same dynamics, as part of a structure of feeling which re-imagined modernity and exhibited an indigenous form of modernism. By uncovering archival evidence of representations of domestic life across a range of media and drawing on interdisciplinary research in middlebrow literature, domestic modernity and suburban culture, I examine how the treatment of domestic life in 1940s British films engaged with the interwar past, but in doing so also laid claim to a vision of the postwar future.

Lawrence Napper’s analysis of interwar British cinema and middlebrow culture describes the suburbs as ‘the middlebrow place par excellence’: as a site exemplifying the ever-tricky-to-pin-down definition of the middlebrow as ‘in-between’ or characterised by ‘balance’ – famously described by Virginia Woolf as ‘neither one thing nor the other […] betwixt and between’.⁴ Napper highlights how suburban homes were at once modern – ‘with bathrooms, indoor plumbing, electric lighting and gas-fuelled kitchens’ – while ‘much of the aesthetic of the suburbs, and the cultural tastes of their inhabitants, emphasized continuity with the past rather than a separation from it’.⁵ Design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan similarly suggests that

The suburban house displayed a series of polarities, yet negotiated a space between them. These oppositions include modernity and nostalgia; urban and rural; past and future; masculine and feminine; culture and nature; public and private. Suburban Modernism was the middle ground where such polarities could come together; contradictions are intrinsic to it.

Through an examination of these polarities, this book explores how the depiction of domestic life onscreen in the 1940s represented a contemporary engagement with this nuanced, often contradictory, vision of modernity, which was closely associated with the domestic sphere and was made popular in connection with suburbia in the 1930s.

I argue that a selection of feature films from the 1940s, often considered a ‘golden age’ in national cinema, can be re-positioned ‘’mid pleasures and palaces’. Covering a variety of portraits of domestic life, the book includes new interpretations of ‘quality films’ often considered as part of an established, academic canon of British cinema, including Cineguild’s This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1944 and 1945) and Ealing Studios’ It Always Rains on Sunday (d. Robert Hamer, 1947) and The Captive Heart (d. Basil Dearden, 1946).⁷ It also extends work on hugely popular films that are more commonly labelled ‘middlebrow’, including the ever-blossom-filled Spring in Park Lane (d. Herbert Wilcox, 1948) and drama The Glass Mountain (d. Henry Cass, 1949). Taking an interdisciplinary and intertextual approach, I analyse the depiction of domestic scenes in this selection of films alongside photo-essays exploring the industrial working-class home in Picture Post magazine; illustrations of peaceful interiors with the countryside close by in Ideal Home magazine, advertisements and furniture catalogues; escapist, magical and aspirational exhibits at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition; and the vividly illustrated stories accompanied by domestic advice published in Modern Woman magazine.

Each of the four chapters examines a different mode of address that shaped the depiction of domestic life in 1940s films: modes balancing realism and romanticism, pastoralism and preservation, escapism and restraint, and melodrama and modernism. By focusing closely on these visual modes of address, the chapters build on Napper’s ground-breaking work on British cinema and middlebrow culture as I argue that the pictorial depiction of domestic life in films in this period conveys their middlebrow status by visually demonstrating a sense of balance and ‘in-between-ness’.⁸ Furthermore, I contend that this sense of balance is not simply demonstrative of the purportedly static, inert style of British cinema. Instead, each mode of address is defined by the constant, dynamic negotiation of competing ideas and ideals, including the negotiation of privacy and community, past and future, consumerism and Englishness, inner and outer wellbeing. This book therefore explores how the homes pictured in British films in this period created visual narratives demonstrative of a dynamic engagement with modernity in the 1940s. With these aims in mind, the remainder of this introduction establishes the central themes of the study: the pictorial style of British films in the 1940s (with particular reference to 1942 film The First of the Few), modernity and the middlebrow in 1930s culture, and the four modes of address in question.

The First of the Few

In The First of the Few, Leslie Howard directs and stars as R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire. In an early scene, set before the war, Howard’s central character returns home disconsolate about the rejection of his first designs in favour of old, traditional models. With a cheery ‘Hallo Mitch’ from his friend, RAF Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven), Mitchell crosses the front lawn to his country cottage. His movement is dwarfed by his domestic surroundings. In the background, his home stands framed by trees and flowerbeds, a garden wall stretches off to the right with only the sky visible beyond. In the foreground, the stone patterned wall, climbing plants and stone-topped gate-posts provide emphatic visual reminders of the house’s pastoral setting. In contrast to the dejected mood of Mitchell, the framing of the shot by the garden walls, the details of the house just visible in the background and the sweeping, pictorial, painterly appearance of the scene emphasise the static, reliable world of the home into which Mitchell wanders (Figure 2). As the white picket-post gate swings closed behind him and the countryside sounds of birdsong greet his return from the city, the film cuts to a table laid for tea in the garden, where Mitchell’s wife, Diana (Rosamund John), and Geoffrey await his news. Diana duly pours, prompting Mitchell’s contented response of ‘ah, tea!’: the everyday setting of the tea table and the tranquil garden conveys the expected rituals of his return home.

2The First of the Few

The camera tracks in from a distanced shot of the tea party to a closer shot of the corner of the tea table, giving the impression of an inquisitive, peering look to establish a close-up vision of the everyday. The observational style, combined with the use of found footage of Spitfires in other scenes, confirms The First of the Few as exemplary of a unique brand of realism which had revitalised the British film industry in wartime. As Andrew Higson notes, British films had become heavily influenced by the style and ideology with which the documentary movement of the 1930s had scrutinised the relationship between private and public: ‘melodramas of everyday life’ and their distinctive mode of stressing ‘the distanced and objective point-of-view’ constructed the private, the domestic and the everyday as part of a wartime conception of national identity.⁹ Under the guidance of the Ministry of Information, which advocated a realist style of fiction filmmaking to promote a shared consensus of ‘national values’, home and domestic life became ‘intensely charged expressions’ of stoicism, stability and nationhood at a time when the real homes of cinema audiences had become sites of danger, discomfort or simply memory during a period of wartime displacement.¹⁰

While the distanced view of the tea table in Mitchell’s garden attests to this realist emphasis on home and national identity, it also embodies a pictorial aesthetic: a style which ‘organizes and displays the landscape as precisely something to be looked at’.¹¹ As in the first moments of Mitchell’s return, the angle of the camera frames the tea table against the static background scenery. Filmed on a sound stage, the lawn, the speckled stone wall and the cloud-dotted sky behind the tea party retain the look of a watercolour painting (Figure 3). Designed by art director Paul Sheriff, the film’s backgrounds were painted by W. Percy Day, whose matte paintings featured in other prestige wartime films including In Which We Serve (d. David Lean and Noël Coward, 1942) and Henry V (d. Laurence Olivier, 1944). Such pictorial-style depictions of home recur throughout The First of the Few, conveying the home as a rural idyll. These include a brief scene in which Crisp finds Mitchell at work in one of his flowerbeds and (perhaps most famously) a shot from one of the final sequences in the film that frames Mitchell with the garden wall and sweeping lawns in the background, with his planes flying overhead.

A number of film historians have noted that such domestic scenes belong to a stuffy, middlebrow and backward-looking depiction of society that was useful in creating an image of wartime consensus. Neil Rattigan, for example, contrasts scenes in Mitchell’s ‘rural-idyllic cottage’ in The First of the Few with documentary sequences, with the suggestion that its construction of domestic life is testament to ‘a middle-class conception of England, and in keeping with the project of nearly all the films of the period, ignores, for the most part, the social realities of Britain’.¹² Alan Lovell observes a similar rendering of home life in In Which We Serve, which intersperses documentary footage of sea battles with scenes set in the crew members’ homes. Lovell suggests that, in these domestic scenes, realist ‘conviction disappears’ to be replaced by catchphrases and ‘a quaint quality’.¹³ Popular with middle-class audiences (as demonstrated by a study of cinema-going undertaken by Mass-Observation in 1943, which notes The First of the Few and In Which We Serve as favourites), the appeal of the middle-class, even suburban, qualities of films has historically been denigrated in academic study as, in the words of Matthew Sweet, ‘strictly for Little Englanders, nostalgia bores and Bakelite-sniffers – people who felt warm inside when they saw John Mills in naval stripes, Jack Hawkins in an Aran sweater’ and a ‘Little England’ of private, suburban homes and back gardens.¹⁴ In terms of their contemporary release, the setting of the British film studios ‘just beyond London’s outer suburbs in the leafy Home Counties’ reinforced this onscreen engagement with a cosy ‘Little England’.¹⁵ Shot at Denham Studios, The First of the Few explored rural and domestic themes with which the British studios were already closely associated. In press releases, magazines and books for film fans, Denham and many of the other film studios were often portrayed as quiet villages.¹⁶ In Denham Village, for example, John Mills lived in a cottage near to David Lean’s and was pictured in Picture Post magazine playing with his children in the garden.¹⁷

3The First of the Few

The First of the Few’s display of domestic life as a static composition embodies the middle-class, suburban outlook associated with the British film industry. Much as the ‘domestic’ label has characterised readings of British cinema, this pictorial aesthetic has been taken as a sign of its lack of visual appeal. Jeffery Richards’ study of cinema in the 1930s, for example, explores the general audience preference for the glamour of American cinema over the middle-class ‘lifeless’ quality of British films.¹⁸ However, Richards adds further caveats to this evidence, suggesting that there was increasing demand for British films, ‘though this may in part reflect the rise in cinema-going among the middle classes, who were predisposed towards the British film. But the label of awfulness stuck.’¹⁹ Likewise, Raymond Durgnat’s study of British cinema suggests that ‘in British middle-class culture […] the style, far from being vehement to the point of hysteria, is underplayed to the point of inertia’.²⁰ As part of a wave of studies in the 1990s and 2000s that repositioned British films as worthy of critical study, Andrew Higson noted that ‘British cinema is often characterized as a cinema of restraint, a cinema that lacks visual interest’.²¹ Contributing to this field, I focus on re-evaluating the ‘lifelessness’, ‘inertia’ and ‘restraint’ characteristic of the appearance of domestic life in 1940s British films by resituating their depictions of home within a more nuanced historical understanding of modernity.

This book builds on work which has reassessed and re-contextualised the pictorial aspects of British cinema. For instance, in Stella Hockenhull’s analysis of neo-romantic landscapes in British cinema, she follows an established line of thought in British film studies regarding the status of film as a pictorial art form: a ‘pictorialist tradition’ labelled as such in earlier accounts by Higson and Christine Gledhill.²² Andrew Higson’s analysis of 1980s and 1990s English heritage films suggests that a pictorial mode of address is a characteristic of their ‘middle-brow version of quality, pitched somewhere between modernism and the more high-brow elements of art cinema on the one hand, and low-brow popular culture on the other’.²³ Christine Gledhill suggests that the pictorial style of British films of the 1920s and 1930s was influenced by a set of characteristics – notably, a changed experience of public and private spheres, the restraint indicative of ‘middle-class hegemony’, and an engagement with modernity which had previously defined nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century theatre and popular culture.²⁴ By focusing on images of domestic life and a form of modernity associated with the suburbs, I expand and refine these conceptions of the pictorial aesthetics of British cinema – as indicative of a negotiation of public and private, a reconciliation of past and future, and the middlebrow.

Middlebrow culture and modernity in the suburbs

‘Middlebrow’ is a slippery term, and it is most frequently used to indicate an ‘in-between’ status, a sense of ‘balance’ or a ‘tendency […] to blur boundaries’.²⁵ Virginia Woolf’s definition and inflammatory denigration of the middlebrow suggests that:

They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between.²⁶

Whereas Woolf attacks her contemporary ‘middlebrows’, including notoriously J. B. Priestley (albeit without naming him), interdisciplinary scholarly research has sought to reposition middlebrow literature and culture as representing an important engagement with modernity. The term modernity is traditionally defined as the period of rapid social and cultural change from the 1870s to the 1930s (and sometimes the 1940s) with reference to the public spaces of the street, the arcade or the department store. However, its reassessment as a certain ‘attitude’ by Michel Foucault or ‘a mode of vital experience’ by Marshall Berman proves useful to a historical understanding of social and cultural constructions of modernity.²⁷

In the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Benjamin presented a nuanced understanding of this ‘attitude’ or ‘mode of vital experience’, introducing a number of ideas that are pertinent to this book. Benjamin’s exploration of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century modernity is characterised by a changed relationship between the private domestic interior and the public sphere. For example, in his analysis of Parisian shopping arcades in his unfinished Passagenwerk (Arcades Project), Benjamin states: ‘the domestic interior moves outside […] the street becomes room and the room becomes street’.²⁸ He demonstrates how interior life was projected into the public sphere, as images in shop windows but also in the walkways between the shops that had become interiors in themselves, emphasising that the emergence of the interior was ‘bound up with its meaning being equally spatial and image based’.²⁹ Furthermore, rather than focusing relentlessly on the future, Benjamin’s notion of the ‘dialectical image’ is a historical moment in which ‘the true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’³⁰ Theodor Adorno’s reading of Benjamin’s work defines his ‘dialectical image’ as a ‘presentation of the modern as at once the new, the already past and the ever-same’, thus indicating a role of the past in a vision of the present, and in Benjamin’s conception of modernity.³¹

These ideas – the emergence of the domestic interior and the ‘dialectical image’ – have since resurfaced in studies of middlebrow culture, which have used similar concepts to re-evaluate historically specific ‘meanings of modernity’.³² In one strand of research, the growing suburbs, the increasing consumer power of the lower-middle and middle classes and the rise in home ownership between the wars were accompanied by dramatic changes in domestic lifestyle and a conception of modernity established in accordance with the private spaces of the home. Alison Light’s landmark study of middlebrow literature suggests that ‘the pleasures of home life were at the centre of the national stage in the interwar years’, describing ‘a modernity which was felt and lived in the most interior and private of places’.³³ Following in Light’s footsteps, a host of studies in twentieth-century literature and culture – including work by Judy Giles, Adrian Bingham, Mica Nava and Wendy Gan – resituate an experience of modernity in the private sphere of the home.³⁴ Judy Giles emphasises that in the first half of the twentieth century ‘for millions of women […] the parlour and the suburb rather than the city were the physical spaces in which they experienced the effects of modernization’.³⁵ Launched between 1920 and 1945, a new range of women’s magazines constructed housewives and mothers as skilled professional and domestic experts, homes as governed with a sense of scientific economy and labour-saving devices as demonstrative of discourses of consumerism and efficiency: all of which have been labelled ‘potent symbols of modernity’.³⁶

In another strand, it has been suggested that this conception of suburban modernity did not negate associations with the past, and instead emphasised them. A number of studies of British literature and culture have revised the idea that the middlebrow is straightforwardly backward-looking. Light suggests an emphasis on modernity in middlebrow literature, which was ‘janus-faced, it could simultaneously look backwards and forwards; it could accommodate the past in the new forms of the present’: she casts this as a ‘conservative embracing of modernity’.³⁷ The new designs of suburban homes with their ‘gables, pitched roofs, lattice windows, half-timber, leaded lights and cosy porches’ – influenced by country cottage style – presented a middle ground between a mythical, rural and ‘inherently imperial’ past and an up-to-date future.³⁸ Sugg Ryan’s recent analysis of suburban modernism and the interwar home details the ‘tensions between the longings for the past and the aspirations for the future displayed in interwar suburbia […] the suburban interwar homeowner travelled between Tudor times and modern times’.³⁹

This book builds on these two strands of the ‘betwixt and between’. Covering both the Second World War and immediate postwar years, I analyse films made in a period of social transition. The outbreak of the war and its social upheavals (including evacuation, women’s war work and mobilisation) significantly altered the realities of home life and the ways in which domesticity figured in popular wartime culture. Nevertheless, this conception of modernity – linked with the home and the past – found a new place as a particularly potent narrative for imagining the postwar future. During the war, interwar images of domestic modernity found new meaning. And, after the end of the war in 1945, the ‘home and its inhabitants’ continued to be positioned as both emblematic of the prewar past and as ‘the symbolic, and actual, centre for postwar reconstruction’.⁴⁰ Research in postwar social history has foregrounded how the negotiation of past and future continued in this period. For example, Claire Langhamer persuasively argues that there was ‘a simultaneous looking backwards and looking forwards’ – terms used by Light to define the conservative nature of modernity in the interwar years – when it came to the postwar home.⁴¹ Langhamer notes that:

The new was sometimes not quite that new. In a number of ways it was dreams and aspirations first formulated in the 1930s which were realized in the 1950s. More specifically, pre-existing demographic trends framed and fuelled the desire for, and possibility of, a more home-centred way of life whilst ‘modern’ domesticity pre-dated the end of the war.⁴²

Images of the modern home in popular culture emphasised, on one hand, a sense of tradition, and on the other hand, a ‘sense of crusading idealism’, ‘a feeling of involvement in national affairs’ and a look to the future in the forward-looking agenda of official discourses surrounding design and rehousing policies.⁴³ In terms of the former, the fall in middle-class standards of living resulting from the continuing austerity conditions of the postwar years only added to the vivacity of the dream of the prewar home.

Postwar images of home looking back to former domestic conditions – in magazines, exhibitions and advertisements – showcase this continued engagement with home as symbolic of the hopes for a conservative, backward-looking modernity. In 1944, for example, the Daily Mail Book of Post-War Homes included an advertisement for Hoover that used the past as a means to imagine future domestic conditions. The slogan stated: ‘post-war as pre-war for the ideal home, be it castle or cottage’.⁴⁴ On the level of rebuilding, Paul Addison suggests that the tone of the 1940s planning schemes was ‘suburban and even traditional’.⁴⁵ According to Nick Bullock, ‘reconstruction was not just about building a nobler world. Planning for the future was inseparably mingled with the desire for continuity with the past’.⁴⁶ Similarly, Harriet Atkinson’s study of the importance of place to the 1951 Festival of Britain suggests that ‘home in the Festival became an important locus for what it meant to be modern and British, while at the same time holding tight to things from the past’.⁴⁷ As such, the festival represented what Robert Hewison describes as ‘a lightweight framework for yet another exploration of Deep England’ and Paul Rennie dubbed ‘a kind of national village fete’.⁴⁸

Interwar suburban modernity has often been considered a phenomenon separate from postwar movements. However, the way in which some of the representations of home in the late 1940s negotiated private conceptions of home and national community suggests a debt to the promotion of modern domesticity in the interwar years. The Britain Can Make It design exhibition in 1946, the first postwar Ideal Home Exhibition in 1947 and the Festival of Britain in 1951 leveraged the hopeful idea of a ‘New Jerusalem’ into the home and presented domestic ‘palaces’ as part of the postwar re-envisioning of the country and a re-working of what ‘modern’ meant.⁴⁹ At the festival, domestic interiors were situated as part of a refashioning of British citizens’ modern private and national identities. The Homes and Gardens pavilion featured rooms designed to solve particular problems for the modern family: the Festival Pattern group based their new domestic designs on molecular structures, exhibiting the influence of new scientific ideas. While simultaneously building on prewar ideas and an image of ‘Deep England’, the furniture on display emphasised bright colours, new shapes and efficient planning, and was thus tailored to the ‘clean, orderly and modern’ vision of the British home presented for the vast crowds who visited the festival. The popular postwar imagining of the home exhibited the conservative modernity developed in interwar suburbia as well as a distinctive re-imagining of the themes central to visual culture surrounding the prewar home.

Domestic life in 1940s British films

Picturing home was a preoccupation that infiltrated a wide range of different cultural media and was part of a specific ‘structure of feeling’ or a ‘common experience of modernity’ closely associated with, and constructed alongside, the suburban home.⁵⁰ This book’s chapters contextualise the different visual modes used to construct domestic life onscreen in relation to extra-cinematic culture: from explorations of industrial working-class homes in Picture Post magazine to the dream spaces of the Ideal Home Exhibition – as well as sources more closely related to the film industry itself, including film magazines and promotional materials. In doing so, it draws on interdisciplinary, intertextual approaches of feminist scholarship exploring British cinema by critically positioning films in relation to a ‘wider circulation of discourses, images and narratives’.⁵¹ Exemplary of this field, Antonia Lant suggests that ‘to convey the texture of the wartime reading of films, to give a sense of the three-dimensional lattice that any wartime film inhabits, […] while positing films as its central texts, [she] investigates the welter of other materials that adhere to them: cartoons, advertisements, diaries, memoirs, articles, reviews, and so on’.⁵² Numerous studies of British film have since furthered this approach by analysing film texts with a close focus on their aesthetic style while keeping a wealth of other cultural discourses in play, and the chapters in this book build on studies re-evaluating the visual appeal of British cinema – in terms of genre, urban settings, rural landscapes, colour, set design and stardom – with the aim of resituating film aesthetics in relation

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