1Director: William Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Dennis Arundell
Based on the opera by: Jacques Offenbach
Producers: William Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine
Year: 1951
Country: UK
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 128 mins

Since discovering their work in my early 20s (when I first truly fell in love with cinema), I have counted Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger among my favourite directors. Their films cover a range of genres and styles but always somehow bear their distinctive stamp. Often the most striking feature of their films is their visual beauty, apparent in such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and, perhaps most famously, The Red Shoes. I mention The Red Shoes last not because it is my favourite (that award would go to either The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or A Matter of Life and Death) but because it is the most obvious reference point for The Tales of Hoffmann, the film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera that Powell and Pressburger made three years later. The celebrated ballet in The Red Shoes was considered by Powell in particular as something of a stepping stone towards what he ultimately wanted to achieve; a ‘composed film’, a cinematic marriage of opera music and celluloid imagery.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, Powell and Pressburger surely realised this ambition in just about as spectacular and jaw-dropping a fashion as could be imagined. The film, in its rich three-strip Technicolor, looks absolutely sumptuous and its dreamlike power has not diminished one iota in the decades since its release. From beginning to end, The Tales of Hoffmann is a visual masterpiece in three distinct acts, each one utilising a different primary colour as its prominent theme. The vivid use of colour is astonishing and it is matched by the Oscar nominated art direction, sets and costumes, which sadly lost both awards to An American in Paris, a film which arguably only matches The Tales of Hoffmann’s mastery in its final ballet sequence. While watching The Tales of Hoffmann I was riveted on an aesthetic level, unable or unwilling to look away from the tremendous spectacle on screen. Not only is the design and execution of the movie exquisite but the minutiae is also wonderful. Powell and Pressburger have peppered the film, particularly its first act, with charming little visual gags and fleeting moments of the unexpected.


And yet, for all my enthusiasm for the film on a visual level, it must be admitted that The Tales of Hoffmann is not a film for everyone. For lovers of opera and especially those already familiar with this particular story, the film will be a treat through and through. But sadly for myself, not only am I not a fan of opera but I actively loathe the trilling, shrill caterwaul that unfortunately accompanies the majority of the film. In many ways I feel unqualified to review The Tales of Hoffmann since it is a film aimed squarely at opera lovers. For the first act at least I thought the sheer brilliance of the films imagery might overcome this personal problem, especially with the mesmerising dancing of Moira Shearer featured so prominently. This first act, which tells the story of Hoffmann’s love for a woman whom he ultimately discovers is a puppet, is the film’s best, stuffed full of cherishable moments and inventive grotesquery which makes a compelling counterpoint to the opulent beauty of the sets and costumes. The absurd story is not easy to follow and I confess that I had to turn on the subtitles in order to understand what everyone was shrieking about but ultimately it mattered little and I drew the conclusion that plot is the least important element of the film and need not have a detrimental effect. For Act 1 this held true, but the following two acts, though still visually striking, largely dispense with the dancing that brought the first act to life, and instead the music and singing are pushed to the forefront and there are increasingly lengthy periods of time when little changes on screen and the mind of the non-opera fan will likely begin to wander.


Doing his damndest to keep the whole thing together is Robert Helpmann, whose brilliant turns in the roles of no less than four different grotesques give the film some of its most memorable images. His continued presence is a blessing in the face of the less interesting central performance of Robert Rounseville in the title role of Hoffmann. Rounseville, to his credit, is one of only two cast members who did their own singing (the other being the sweet but equally bland Ann Ayars as Hoffmann’s third love Antonia) and, despite his central role, he is often reduced to the role of observer, as in the first act when he is given a pair of enchanted glasses. But Helpmann thoroughly upstages him with his wonderful acting that combines the traditions of stage and silent cinema to magical effect. The other star of the show (aside from art director Hein Heckroth) is Moria Shearer, who previously starred in The Red Shoes and whose dancing and joie de vivre once again bring the screen to life.


Although revered by many filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and George A. Romero among them (the latter naming the film as his favourite of all time and the reason he got into filmmaking), The Tales of Hoffmann is surprisingly a lesser known work by Powell and Pressburger. This is perhaps due to the fact that they have so many other classics in their canon to overshadow it but it is more likely the divisive nature of opera itself that has made it seem inaccessible to many. Although it is sometimes hard work for the non-opera fan, I would encourage anyone to watch this remarkable film as it is powerful enough in its visual invention to break through the barrier and make me wish I didn’t loathe opera so as I’d dearly love to recommend it more highly. Still, this long overdue restoration by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker highlights just how irresistible the film is, especially in its reinstated epilogue which keeps up the levels of invention right into the closing credits as the actors and the singers who provided their voices are seen side by side through a representation of the magic spectacles from Act 1.

The Tales of Hoffmann is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Studiocanal on 23rd March 2015. As well as the stunning restoration, the discs also include introductions by both Scorsese and Schoonmaker, as well as a brand new trailer and stills gallery.

One Response

  1. Rebecca

    Great review! I recently saw this film in all it’s restored glory at the Glasgow Film Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed the visuals and the detail, but I completely agree with you, this was just not the film for me, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t watch it again and I know I am just not the right person to truly appreciate this film!


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