A Cottage on Dartmoor
d. Anthony Asquith / 1929 / UK / 88 mins
Throughout cinema’s early history, many attempts were made to combine the medium with a soundtrack containing both dialogue and music. It was finally made commercially successful with The Jazz Singer in 1927 and soon after would dominate the mainstream, all but eliminating the use of silent film (famous exceptions and examples of intentionally silent movies being 1929’s Un Chien Andalou, 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds and 1936’s Modern Times). Released in 1929, A Cottage on Dartmoor would be one of the last swan songs for British silent film.
Anthony Asquith is a director who may always be remembered under the shadows of others. His father was the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith (whose most famous descendant is Helena Bonham Carter) and his own filmography is primarily based around the adapted works of more notable writers (his versions of Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest being prominant examples). Successful as his films were at the time, his individual ability was outshone by contemporaries such as Alfred Hitchcock and was never highlighted in the same manner that they had done in the silent era. In retrospect, many film historians consider the Asquith of this period more than equal to Hitchcock’s innate talent for suspense and class A Cottage on Dartmoor as being the pinnacle of his visual creativeness.
The story is deceptively simple and stars Uno Henning as Joe, a barber infatuated with his colleague, a manicurist named Sally (played by Norah Baring). After one tense and awkward date motivated by Sally’s pity, a misunderstanding causes Joe to believe that her feelings for him are stronger than they actually are. Sally’s occupation comes into play in more ways than one as the actors and Asquith communicate their characters’ feelings and motivations as much through their subtle gestures as they do their expressions. Henning in particular plays the tragic protagonist with an impressive balance of both rage and sorrow and through Asquith’s close ups of Joe’s hands, his desire to caress Sally echoes Frankenstein’s monster as much as it precursors Steinbeck’s Lennie Small.
Joe is overwhelmed by a feeling of betrayal when Sally courts and subsequently becomes engaged to Harry (Hans Aldalbert Schlettow), his obsession reaching fever pitch when he slashes at the neck of Harry with his razor whilst cutting his hair. Asquith’s film is one of subtlety and instead of demonising the more volatile element of this love triangle, use of raw emotional empathy allows us to feel for Joe, countering any argument that silent cinema is ultimately detached. Joe’s escape from his incarceration at Dartmoor prison and journey to find Sally (now married and with a young child) forms the remainder of the simple plot, portrayed with little interest in action, its most memorable moments are all derived from moments of human interaction.
Asquith uses flashbacks, surrealism and occasional avant guard nuances to inject life into what borders on becoming a conventional (if overly melodramatic) thriller. The restrained use of such themes and the precision with which they are used stands out as A Cottage on Dartmoor’s greatest attribute. The monotony of men’s small talk is counterpointed by footage of cricket and Joe’s violent outburst is accompanied by a stirring flash of red in an otherwise black and white feature. Sparse use of intertitles accentuate the film’s silence; what remains a tragedy is that although Asquith has mastered the art of this relatively modern medium, it would only serve to underscore its premature demise.
One track of dialogue did exist in the film and ran alongside what is by far the most memorable of A Cottage on Dartmoor’s scenes. The track itself is lost to the annals of history but perhaps makes the film all the more poignant because of it. The scene is that of Sally and Harry’s date, sharing the laughs of a silent short and the drama of the talkie that follows it. We never see the films themselves but instead focus upon the varied reactions on the audience’s faces. In a clever use of sound, the fictional film was intended to be heard, the only use of audible dialogue within the film. What contemporary audiences have in contrast is a fully silent film (with new, albeit excellent musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne) where we are deaf and blind to the happenings on screen, save for Asquith’s meticulous depiction of his audience’s reactions. There is something limiting and fractured about this viewing experience that highlights that cinema (silent or not) is incapable of being omniscient, its pleasures are to be found in the selective choices it employs, pinpointing moments of humanity.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is a slight yet well executed film that rises above its flaws (lack-lustre title being among them) and serves as a forgotten exemplar of British film-making in the silent era. Alongside other films of it’s age it makes one hope that the poetry found in silent cinema may yet see its own renaissance.