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
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.