director Anthony Asquith
In 2011, an article ran on Time Out detailing the best British films of all time, and I think I was intrigued because of the many with which I was indeed familiar, there were others with which I wasn’t familiar at all. As is my way, I queued up as many of the films that I could find available and left them for future viewing. One of Netflix’s long-handy traits.
Director Anthony Asquith’s The Cottage on Dartmoor was one of those films.
Somewhere over the intervening years, I’ve read more of Asquith and Cottage, mainly perhaps in relation to a showing of another of Asquith’s silent films, Underground, at the BFI and subsequent DVD release (I would love to see that film, too. Honestly, I believe I’d read something of greater substance on Cottage itself, but I’m just not turning it up.) I’ve subsequently gained more avenues of film access, in this case Fandor streaming.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is a thriller, a story of unrequited love, a self-reflexive cinema commentary, and a redemptive humanist portrait. Quite a lot in 88 minutes.
It’s a striking, remarkable film.
It opens with the escape of a criminal from a prison/asylum, his mad race across the countryside, breaking into an isolated cottage and confronting a woman who recognizes him and utters the first words of this silent film, his name. Silence and words are a vivid factor in Cottage, especially as played out in an extended scene in a cinema midway through the film. A lot of focus has been given to the commentary Asquith provides on the transition from silent movies to “talkies,” and with good reason. It’s right there, most vividly.
But the film itself is also remarkably visual in its storytelling. I think it’s about 10-11 minutes before the first verbal titlecard appears and sends the story into an extended flashback to the story of Joe (Uno Henning), a lovelorn barber and Sally (Norah Baring), the manicurist he loves. He asks her out to a “talkie” but first she turns him down. Eventually they have dinner at her boardinghouse, while she tries to be friendly and entertaining, he shows his love only knows a creepiness and obsession.
She falls for Harry (Hans Adalbert Schettlow), a farmer with a cottage in Dartmoor, who wants to take her away from all things. She does take Harry up on the date to the “talkies,” where the notable scene takes place, and eventually promises to marry him, which pushes Joe to the edge (the line literally snaps in metaphor) and he attempts to slit Harry’s throat while on the barber’s chair.
This is most of the film, the flashback, but eventually we end back up at the cottage on Dartmoor, Sally at Joe’s hands, in revenge. But what seems like it might become some Hitchcockian thriller, ends up playing out with great pathos and humanistic power a tale of forgiveness, redemption, and ultimate tragedy, something that brought to mind not so much “The Master of Suspense” but rather F.W. Murnau in his more beautiful like The Last Laugh (1924) or Sunrise (1927).
I found it quite moving.
The self-reflexive portion of the film, in the cinema, is remarkable on its own. A Cottage on Dartmoor would turn out to be Asquith’s fourth and final silent film (he went on to a career of many films on through the 1960’s), but what is so interesting about Cottage is where it sits on the verge of the “talkies”.
As I’ve mentioned, when asked out to a movie, it’s very specifically a “talkie” that they plan to see, which is odd enough in a silent film, right? But at the theater, the crowd watches a Harold Lloyd silent short, laughing uproariously while a small orchestra plays with avid gusto. Our drama plays out as Joe surreptitiously watched Harry and Sally, but Asquith captures a multitude of experiences all around, the various characters attending the film and their mixed and complex reactions to the screen. And when the Lloyd silent short ends, the feature “talkie” begins, and the transition of cinema is being shown as it unfolds. It’s indeed a fascinating piece within the film, ripe and ready for analysis and interest.
The film as a whole is quite terrific and there is far more than I have time and energy to address in a simple response like I write here. I really liked the film a lot. It’s fascinating. And I eagerly now want to see Asquith’s Underground as well. It’s odd and interesting that he went on to a career of high mediocrity after having started so well in the silents. Maybe he was already aware that he had found his medium right as it was changing forever.