04/02/2012 02:41 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2013

The Ten Greatest From Great Britain

Calling all Anglophiles: the Criterion Collection has a treat in store.

Their essential new DVD set, "David Lean Directs Noel Coward", brings together pristine transfers of four legendary film collaborations between famous English playwright/personality Noel Coward and a young film editor named David Lean.

Talk about a heaven-sent collaboration. At this critical juncture in British history (1942-1945), with the Second World War raging all around them, these two men sensed just what a struggling, uncertain public craved... specifically, films that:

Reminded them just what they were fighting for (1942's In Which We Serve),

Romanced the lives of ordinary British citizens (1944's This Happy Breed),

Provided much-needed fantasy and escapism (1945's Blithe Spirit), and

Revived the prospect of romantic love after six years of conflict and sacrifice (1945's Brief Encounter).

Coward and Lean were uniquely well-positioned to help each other at the time: Lean's cinematic skill allowed Coward to transfer his special gifts from the footlights to the cinema with deceptive ease, while Coward's creative sensibility gave a brilliant but uncertain young editor the confidence to emerge as a world-class director.

After screening these priceless entries -- all so quintessentially English -- I resolved to compile my own top ten, "desert island" list of British films across the decades -- those that evoke most powerfully the unique character of this proud, hearty people. (Note: it feels like no accident that the first three titles listed also come to us courtesy of our friends at Criterion.)

The Lady Vanishes
(1938) -- When elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappears without a trace on a train en route to England, her acquaintance Iris (Margaret Lockwood) searches every cabin and corner -- without success. Stranger still, the other passengers deny this charming old lady ever existed. Despite their skepticism and her own increasing self-doubt, Iris pursues the truth with the aid of handsome musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), who's more attracted to Iris than to the mystery. Alfred Hitchcock's timeless early classic begins on a high comic note, then quickly transforms into a suspense film with political overtones. As in The 39 Steps, the priceless banter between the heroine and her unlikely ally elevates what is already a nifty nail-biter into something infinitely more special: a romantic mystery. The cast of eccentrics -- especially two English tourists played by Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne -- give this"Lady" extra punch, and Dame May Whitty is adorable as the elusive old lady who causes all the fuss.

The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp
(1943) -- The prodigious British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, dubbed "The Archers," released this, their first color feature, at the end of the costly Second World War. The film recalls the life of a career military officer, General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), whose postings and exploits mirror the fortunes of his country. Less war film than human drama, we flash back to Wynne-Candy's younger days, his relationships with three key women in his life (all played by Deborah Kerr), and a sorely tested friendship with a German officer (Anton Walbrook). The lengthy but immensely rewarding Blimp is a warm, fond salute to a colonial British Empire which would never exist again. Livesey is superb as the beloved central character who ages forty years over the course of the film, and Walbrook is equally astonishing as Wynne-Candy's German friend, whom he's forced to oppose in wartime. And young Deborah was never more luminous than in this early role. Once again, Criterion deserves credit for a gorgeous high-definition transfer of this masterpiece, which makes the old seem new again.

Great Expectations
(1946) -- In British director David Lean's superb rendering of the Dickens classic, we follow the changing fortunes of Pip, an orphan who reaches young manhood (as John Mills), only to discover he has an anonymous benefactor intent on making him a real gentleman. With his new friend Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), Pip sets out to make his mark in bustling, 19th-century London. But just who is Pip's mysterious sponsor? Perhaps the finest Dickens adaptation ever, this rich, fascinating film about chance encounters and changing fortunes begins with a nerve-rattling sequence in a graveyard that's one of the finest moments in British film. Both Mills and Guinness are a trifle old for their roles, but their virtuosity fully compensates. Guinness, in his first significant screen appearance, is particularly striking as Pocket, giving us a tantalizing taste of things to come. This bona-fide classic more than lives up to "Expectations."

The Ladykillers(1955) -- Criminal mastermind Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) and his motley crew of thieves are planning a daring bank robbery. To provide suitable cover, they masquerade as a group of amateur musicians and take lodgings at the home of kindly old Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). The Professor assumes the aged landlady will remain unobstrusive and clueless to their machinations, but he sorely underestimates her. Man in the White Suit director Alexander Mackendrick and Guinness reunite in this peerless black comedy, which benefits from William Rose's ingenious story and the finest casting a comedy could hope for. Guinness' Marcus is the essence of smarmy charm (check out his false teeth, which create a slightly menacing quality). The gang itself is a truly inspired bunch of misfits, including Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, and a portly Peter Sellers (the latter two would reunite years later for the Pink Panther series). But it's the diminutive Katie Johnson who very nearly steals the picture; her Mrs. Wilberforce projects a steely will cloaked in Victorian gentility. (Be warned: don't confuse this with the inferior Coen Brothers' remake starring Tom Hanks.)

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962) -- Sentenced to a boys' reformatory for robbing a bakery, rebellious English punk Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) soon attracts the interest of the school's governor (Michael Redgrave) for his athletic prowess. Hoping to groom Colin for a cross-country race against a public school, the governor endows him with special privileges. But is the embittered Colin willing to be house-trained? One of the best of Britain's Angry Young Man films, Tony Richardson's expressive drama hinges on the complex psychology of Colin, an uneducated but cunning youth still smarting from the recent death of his father. Richardson builds tension by cutting between the restrictions and tensions of reform-school life and Colin's recollection of events leading up to his arrest and detention. Courtenay (of Billy Liar fame) gives a haunting performance in the title role, and Redgrave is masterful playing a cold rehabilitator obsessed with winning a trophy. For a powerful expression of working-class disaffection, go the distance with this "Runner."

Women in Love
(1971) -- In 1920s England, at a picnic in honor of their newly married friends, bosom buddies Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates) meet and fall in love with free-spirited artist Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and her schoolteacher sister, Ursula (Jennie Linden), respectively. After a brief courtship, Gerald marries Gudrun and Rupert weds Ursula. But during a honeymoon vacation in the Swiss Alps, their relationships veer onto wildly divergent paths. This intelligent, passionate adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel by British director Ken Russell fuses romantic classicism with frank talk, as the frolicking foursome openly discuss their philosophies of love and desire, friendship and commitment. Reed and then-unknown actress Glenda Jackson are especially compelling as the couple whose marital life is corrupted by her frivolous affair with a bisexual painter in Switzerland. Russell has an eye for the striking and extravagant, like the nude fireside wrestling match between Gerald and Rupert, and such daring, unexpected episodes are part of the film's enduring appeal. What's not to "Love"?

Dance With a Stranger (1985) -- In Mike Newell's recounting of the crime that shook England, Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson) is a club hostess with the bad fortune to meet and fall for the wealthy, careless David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a young playboy whose attentions toward Ruth eventually turn sporadic. Ruth truly loves David, so his inconstancy wreaks havoc with her already delicate mental state. Ruth's loyal friend Desmond (Ian Holm) tries to steer her off this destructive course, but fails. This tortured romance is bound to end in tragedy. This beautifully rendered, superbly acted film recreates events leading up to one of England's most famous crimes of passion. Newell painstakingly revives the look and feel of 1950s London, using this sordid affair to examine the ingrained class differences that doomed the couple from the start. Richardson, Everett, and Holm are marvels to watch, and the film's shattering climax is worth waiting for. Catch this chilling romantic thriller.

My Left Foot (1989) -- Jim Sheridan's film unfolds the Incredible but true story of Irishman Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis), afflicted with severe cerebral palsy who, through sheer will and persistence, finds an outlet as an artist and writer -- using just his left foot. Brenda Fricker plays Christie's biggest booster and helpmate, his mother. This immensely moving, inspirational tale is carried by a once-in-a-lifetime performance from Day-Lewis, undoubtedly one of the finest, most painstaking feats of acting ever captured on film. Fricker is also outstanding as Mrs. Brown, a woman strong enough to stand by Christy each torturous step of the way. Rarely were two acting Oscars so well earned. Also nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, Foot is one of those special movies that merits a repeat viewing every few years. You should rediscover this treasure soon.

Howard's End (1992) -- James Ivory's meticulous adaptation of E.M. Forster's book depicts the subtle transitions in the British class system in the early 20th century. The film traces the evolving relationship between Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), a restrained and conservative industrialist, and Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) -- a poor, yet plucky younger woman. Few filmmakers capture period detail like the team of Merchant-Ivory, and this may be their finest hour. Here, a brilliant Hopkins is the personification of upper-class British reserve, while Thompson is expressive and radiant in an Oscar-winning performance. Vanessa Redgrave portrays Hopkins' dying wife with poignancy, and a youthful Helena Bonham Carter is suitably fiery as Thompson's "modern" sister. Don't miss this literate, human drama of the first order.

Vera Drake (2004) -- Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a maternal, middle-aged housekeeper in a working-class London neighborhood of the 1950s who's known to everyone as a nurturer. She cares for her elderly mother and many others, who depend on her generosity and compassion. Less known, even to her husband Stan (Phil Davis), is that Vera also helps poor young women with unwanted pregnancies end them, an illegal practice that she sees as ethical and necessary, but that may eventually leave her life in ruins. Written and directed by the gifted Mike Leigh, this heart-wrenching drama concerns a woman whose almost saintly sense of charity extends to all around her, but whose naiveté ultimately results in a traumatic reckoning with authority. Though he's dealing with a hot-button issue, Leigh does not moralize or sentimentalize, leaving us to mull the fate of an abortionist who even the police are loath to vilify. In a movie chock-full of outstanding performances, Staunton's Oscar-nominated turn as the kindly Vera is an acting feat of rare heart and authenticity.

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