Picking apart the neuroses of love, jealousy and obsession, Anthony Asquith’s brilliant sophomore feature is an unappreciated masterwork of the British silent era
Overshadowed by the ubiquity of Hollywood enterprise, British film was widely believed to be lagging behind its American counterparts during the closing years of the self-styled ‘roaring twenties.’ 1927 had seen the release of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer, another colossal addition to an already flourishing American canon, widening a rapidly increasing rift between the land of the free and the rest of the world. British audiences were under no illusion. Cinema’s first-ever feature-length ‘talkie’ was extending this discrepancy with unprecedented critical and commercial successes worldwide. The American advent of sound was such a profound technological advancement that many were dubbing it the only way forward for the medium, and justifiably, many UK-based cineastes were concerned. What was to become of their declining national industry?
The same year, British politicians were beginning to take notice of these emerging inconsistencies, and after some deliberation, they decided to intervene. Aiming to revitalise the indigenous spirit, MPs swiftly introduced the parliamentary Cinematograph Films Act: a watershed moment that necessitated a minimum quota for British motion pictures in cinemas and theatres across the nation. Receiving royal assent in the winter, this patriotic undertaking was intended to rejuvenate an industry which had (albeit indirectly) become an implicit understudy to Hollywood. The act officially came into effect on April 1, 1928, and despite being marred by various pitfalls, it emboldened British filmmakers with a new-found sense of purpose.
Whilst many practitioners of the silent era found themselves at a troubling crossroads, native filmmakers like Anthony Asquith embraced the government’s initiative with open arms, refusing to concede that their beloved craft just might be dwindling into obsolescence. Was their room for silent films in an industry that was burgeoning with the introduction of such an intense cultural shift? In 1929, Asquith would answer this question with a profound testament.
Recounting an entrancing tale of unrequited love, A Cottage on Dartmoor follows the neurotic fixations of ex-barber/prison escapee Joe (Uno Henning) as he compulsively pursues the romantic interests of his co-worker Sally (Norah Baring) in vain. Told in winding, interweaving flashbacks, Asquith’s film plays out with expressionistic verve; the expected melodramas of the era heightened with dazzling visual dexterity and gorgeous, sweeping style. As Joe’s unreciprocated advances become more perverse and macabre, we’re treated to an intensive, Hitchcockian morality play that tautly picks apart the psychosis of fanatical desire and its all-consuming effects. Brilliantly rendered with unforgettable imagery, excellent performances and clever, self-aware references to cinema’s aural paradigm shift, Asquith’s film is made even more extraordinary when viewed in context.
The son of former Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, Anthony lived a life of considerable privilege and prosperity during his formative years. According to actor and close friend Jonathan Cecil, Asquith’s initial fascination with the scandal of the film industry was a purely superficial means of escaping his familial background and social standing. Ironic, then, that such a shallow fixation would ultimately give rise to one of the most underrated films of this entire period.
Dartmoor is a film that functions almost entirely on cinematic terms. Its concentrated visuality unimpeded is by needless dialogue. A scarce use of intertitles has something of a paradoxical effect on this film’s sense of meaning. The formal, cinematic elements function as a kind of alternative language. The effect is breath-taking. Whilst many would struggle to impart meaning with waffling exposition, Asquith uses the rudiments of lighting, cinematography and editing to carefully convey the crux of his narrative. By bypassing the prevalence of words, the film becomes paradoxically communicative and clear. The universality of gesture, expression and mannerism illuminate most of the film’s narrative beats, and rather strikingly, they never feel insufficient. As the readiness of the written word becomes more and more infrequent, the aesthetical elements start to become representative, creating a space where cinema itself becomes the prevailing language of the story.
Darting across the barren, windswept moors, sprawling wide shots dwarf and belittle our protagonist as he battles the gloom of the elements, frantically scrambling to outrun the darkness that chases and pursues him. Long, stunted pans and tilts reflect a dwindling state of mind without the need for dialogue; strange, off-kilter framing suggests at a perturbed psyche. Barren landscapes establish a tone of gothic, murky mise-en-scène. Foreboding silhouettes of crooked trees actualise warped fixations as melancholy tones bring Dartmoor’s dark, brooding timbre to life. From the very opening frames, we’re plunged head-first into a wonderful mish-mash of genre and convention that lends this story a stunning visual canvas on which to paint its myriad themes and ideas. Infusing his approach with techniques routinely categorised as “European” in the mid to late twenties, Asquith understood that the importance of aesthetical style was (and still is) integral to the creation of meaning within the medium. Operating within realms that many would deem constrictive, it may appear that he was aesthetically constrained, at least on the surface. But just as Eisenstein, Murnau and Lang had demonstrated with their ground-breaking inventions, Asquith built on the on the innovations of his influences with his own sense of identity, ensuring that each cut was purposeful, every camera move deliberate, every lighting decision specific. If there ever was a film that bolstered the legitimacy of the Kuleshov effect or the potency of chiaroscuro, this is surely it.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is a stunning, virtuoso work. Here is a film made during the embryonic phases of cinematic history, yet somehow it retains just as much power and potency almost 100 years on.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is currently available on DVD and to rent on BFI Player