The Tales of Hoffmann Review
This is pure cinema at its most fabulous and entrancing
Movies reviewBorn in an age of studio defiance and boundless imaginative wit and creativity, Powell and Pressburger’s lavish and fantastical 1951 treatment of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, hits all the right notes in a spellbinding treat for the senses that heralded one of the most majestic and influential high points in cinematic history.
I will be honest and say, right now, that The Tales of Hoffmann is not one of my favourite films. I adore Powel and Pressburger but I have an unbridled loathing of opera... and yet... and yet... how can you not become utterly entranced and beguiled by a production as inventive, as visually fantastic and as richly composed as this? The performances are electrifying. Robert Helpmann is astonishingly versatile. The artistry is simply ravishing. The power and epic scope of the tales and the passion they evoke can be savoured on a dream-like basis, or allowed to truly infiltrate your soul. The film is a painting come to life.
It is a clichéd line, I know, but if you have any appreciation for what cinema can achieve, then you already owe this film a huge debt of gratitude. Without it, some seminal practitioners of the art would never have endeavoured to get behind a camera. Thus, its legacy is peerless even if you don’t, like me, actually have any understanding of, or interest in anything remotely operatic, or even of a merely musical whimsy.
The trio of stories contained here chronicle the obsessive devotion that the hero-poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) has for the three loves in his life that conflicted with his art. Seen as a mechanical dancing doll (Moira Shearer), a Venetian courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) and the tragically ill daughter of a mad conductor (Ann Ayars), these infatuations are all manipulated by the sinister guises of the incredible Robert Helpmann (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher), who appears in each tale with motives of his own.
The lavish set design and costumes, inspiring music and choreography, and the incredible visual invention on display are legendary, ensuring that the film has been justifiably hailed as a masterpiece. Bizarrely, an affectation for opera is not at all necessary to savour its many treasures, as this is pure cinema at its most fabulous and entrancing.
The film influenced Scorsese, obviously, but also the fantastic minds of Dario Argento, George Romero, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam – and you can clearly see the components, be they visually crafted, or by sheer technical design, complex or cathartic theme, twisted muse or simply cinematic and creative verve that inspired their particular aesthetic fascination. Hell, even the original Star Trek TV show seems culled from the same uniquely gorgeous colour scheme. There are times, when watching this, that I almost expect Kirk and Spock to suddenly appear, phasers drawn, from behind the ornate drapes as though having beamed down to some phantasmogoric world of Machiavellian psychedelia .
As well as being transferred from a beautiful 4K restoration, this version also includes newly discovered sequences from Act Three and the Epilogue, which were missing from previously released versions of the film, but were found in the nitrate material held at the BFI. Without a doubt, The Tales of Hoffmann is a stunning experience that cannot fail to enchant. Unadulterated magic.
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