A film for a housebound Sunday afternoon; a wild creature held captive…
Gone to Earth was directed by Michael Powell in 1950 and… it’s also one of the great British regional films, and marks one of the few occasions when we managed to break out of the studio and photograph the endlessly surprising, endlessly lovely British landscape in all its Technicolor strangeness.
Set in the hill villages of Shropshire at the turn of the century, and based on a novel by Mary Webb about an untamed country girl (Jennifer Jones) torn between the amorous attentions of the lusty squire and a sexless parson, Gone to Earth is in many ways an over-literary and madly schematic film. But Powell was prepared to overlook his own reservations about the material. Having tried and, by his own admission, failed to capture the spirit of his beloved Kent in A Canterbury Tale a few years earlier, he was “determined that this should be a genuine regional film”, and spent weeks scouring the Welsh Marches for locations with his cinematographer, Christopher Challis.
See the film again today and its melodramatic story soon recedes into the background. What ravishes the eyes and pierces the heart is an astonishing series of pastoral tableaux: the long shadows of birch trees as they lean into the wind against a sky of impossible blue; a bleak mountainside at twilight, its rocks sculpted into the semblance of contorted monsters; silvery trails of mist shrouding a desolate country house at dawn.
Years later Challis was proudly to claim that “the final result was, I think, one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside and in all its moods. Hours of patient waiting in rain, cold and sleet, for just the right angle of sunlight across a landscape, 5am calls day after day to catch the early morning mist: it was all so very worthwhile.”