Tuesday, February 19, 2013

1942 - The Invaders

I'd like to write at least one more post before the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, but if the past is anything to go by, I'd better write about the Best Director and Best Picture races now, just in case.

As I've mentioned previously, based on precursor awards alone, it would not be unreasonable to predict Argo and Ben Affleck to take out the Oscar double. The film and its director have cleaned up at the major awards (Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, and both the Producers and Directors Guilds). However, there's one fatal flaw in that prediction - Affleck wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar. So that award is now up for grabs. Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin, helmers of Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild, respectively, seem unlikely winners. Likewise, David O. Russell hasn't been talked about much in this category so his work on Silver Linings Playbook will most probably go unrewarded here. That leaves Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, both previous Oscar winners, whose films this year received the most nominations overall - Lincoln nabbed twelve while Life of Pi was cited for eleven. Despite its across-the-board support, I just don't feel Life of Pi has the same momentum as Lincoln, so I'm inclined to suggest Spielberg will take home his third Oscar this weekend. I won't rule out an upset, though.

As for Best Picture, Argo was indeed nominated for that, so it still has an incredibly good shot at winning the top prize, given its success this season. However, without that Best Director nomination, it's by no means a foregone conclusion, rare as it is that Picture and Director are awarded to separate films. Furthermore, Lincoln is perhaps exactly the kind of movie the Academy loves, so maybe the safe bet is that Lincoln will claim both these two awards.

Back to the 1942 Best Picture race now and let's take a look at...

The Invaders
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger and Rodney Ackland
Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, Best Original Story

A British film set in Canada, The Invaders was known in its country of origin (and everywhere else in the world, for that matter) as 49th Parallel. At the outset, a Nazi U-boat makes its way into Canadian waters with the intention to invade. However, it is sunk by British planes, but not before six men escape to land. Through the ubiquitous use of map graphics, the abandoned party, led by Lieutenant Hirth (Portman) travel across Canada, finding themselves in various sticky situations, including an extended stay in a Hutterite community.

As a propaganda film, writer-director team Powell and Pressburger, made The Invaders in part to encourage the US to finally enter the Second World War. Revisiting the picture seven decades later without the perspective of a global war is undoubtedly a different experience, predominantly due to its lead characters. In most stories, film or otherwise, the character central to the plot is usually the protagonist, someone with which the audience can empathise. Here, however, the focus is on a group of Nazis on the run in Canada after a failed invasion. On the one hand, cinematic conventions create a subconscious urge to root for the main characters, particularly since we follow their adventures for a full two hours. On the other hand ... well, they're Nazis and they shoot people. It's a strange feeling. I suppose, then, that is where the film's cleverness lies. These unpleasant men, carrying a misguided patriotism and delusional views of world domination, insidiously weasel their way through scenario after scenario, yet we remain intrigued and captivated by their fate. The suspense as they attempt to avoid capture is in no way lessened by the fact that we don't care for them. In fact, in a way, it is amplified, since we still clearly have a stake in the outcome.

It is somewhat confusing at the beginning of the film to hear all the Germans speak with such eloquent British accents. While the convention is accepted soon enough, there still remains an odd verisimilitude. One imagines that Germans speaking English in Canada would be found out immediately due to their accents and broken English, yet time and time again, the Canadians are entirely unaware that these men are anything out of the ordinary, well spoken as they are.

Despite the three names above the title in the film's poster, Eric Portman is without a doubt the lead, and he carries the film superbly. His Nazi Lieutenant is frighteningly passionate, yet it is a subtle performance that finds its way under your skin without being obviously evil. The great Laurence Olivier (pictured) could be rather hit and miss in his early days, and his tendency for larger than life characters is distinctly on display here as an excitable French-Canadian with an excitable accent. And come to think of it, why does he have an accent when the German characters don't? Leslie Howard also shines as a happy-go-lucky British writer who discovers his own courage. And speaking of the poster, why on earth the main image is of Olivier carrying the young Glynis Johns, I have no idea. Both are undeniably supporting players. Not to mention the fact that they never share the screen together.

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