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More story, less music, needed

24 May 2013

Stephen Brown sees a new documentary-drama about Britten

Musical prodigy: Alex Lawther as the young Britten in Benjamin Britten

Musical prodigy: Alex Lawther as the young Britten in Benjamin Britten

IT WOULD be easier but wrong to criticise this centenary-year drama-documentary Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict (Cert. PG) for what isn't there than for what is: for instance, his dislike of Brahms's music, or why, with his radical politics, he accepted a peerage. And, perhaps of greater interest to Church Times readers: what really were his religious views? We do get glimpses of these through school chapel attendance.

The rather shy young Ben (Alex Lawther) listens attentively to a sermon entreating its listeners to learn from the horrors of the 1914-18 War. His inclinations towards pacifism are reinforced by pupils' being encouraged to address the social and political concerns of the day. Several of them (including his friend Donald Maclean, later to become a Soviet spy) adopt a so- cialist agenda as a result.

Instrumental in this is a fear of fascism prompted by the rise of Nazi Germany.

As Britten grows into manhood, he retains much the same outlook, while falling under the spell of W. H. Auden, who encourages Britten and his companion, Peter Pears, to explore the work of John Donne, especially the Holy Sonnets - and their wrestling with God. We get to experience "Oh My Blacke Soule"; and the film ends with Britten's Hymn to the Virgin - both sung, it would seem, in their entirety, as if this were a filmed concert.

As a result, there is a disconnection between the attempt at a dramatic narrative about what, in effect, is only the first half of the composer's life, and the rather full musical interludes. Glorious as the performances are, there is a danger of the film's containing too many notes, inhibiting the storytelling rather than illustrating it.

The exception to chronicling those early years via talking heads, quotations from letters, and John Hurt's voiceover are lashings and lashings of the War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Masterpiece it may well be, but the prominence given here is due to its concerns with peacemaking rather than any religious elements.

As I say, this is not a film dealing comprehensively with Britten's life or output. If it had been, then perhaps we would have heard something about such works as Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for that significant patron of the arts Walter Hussey, then Vicar of St Matthew's, Northampton, along with Missa Brevis, Hymn to St Cecilia, and A Ceremony of Carols.

We can judge Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict only by what it says on the tin. Enjoyable enough, but the way Tony Britten (a relative, perchance?) directs it is a throwback to arts programmes such as Monitor which the BBC used to present - sadly, minus the flair of a Ken Russell or John Schlesinger.

On current release.

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