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The Tales of Hoffmann

Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell

UK, 1951

Cornerhouse, 29 March 2015

The Tales of Hoffmann

This is an extraordinary film still, being chockfull of elegant, sensual dancing; myriad deliciously decadent scenes and situations; as well as some fraught moments where evil – luxuriant vice – seems to triumph.

Pressburger and Powell’s stellar cast consists of the very best balletic and operatic talent of the day, including Moira Shearer, making her reappearance after starring in the pair’s The Red Shoes a few years before; Frederick Ashton (not yet knighted), who also did the choreography; and Leonide Massine, once a principal with the Ballets Russes and incidentally Ashton’s tutor for a time in the 1920s.  Hein Heckroth’s set and costume designs add enormously to the feel of the film.

As the final credits roll, the film is given the proud stamp ‘Made in Britain’ – and so it was, though you cannot help but wonder at how it was received at the time.  To post-war Britain, beset by a grey and dreary austerity (sound familiar?), Offenbach’s tales of Hoffmann’s unlucky relations with women, of how he is stalked throughout by a sinister nemesis, finally ending his days dissolute and drunk, must have seemed seriously out of kilter.  The film’s many extravagant flourishes and the use of a fiery, bold Technicolor must have come as an energising thunderbolt.

However, when you see it now, you immediately think: masterpiece.  It is a film that’s at least equal in artistic stature to The Red ShoesThe Tales of Hoffmann is showing again on Wednesday, further details are here.