Went the Day Well? On re-release 9th-31st July, BFI
The year is 1940 and it’s an average day in the English village of Bramley End. Soldiers arrive and the locals greet them. But something’s awry. These soldiers eat Viennese chocolate. When they write “7,” they put a cross through it. Gradually it dawns on the villagers: the soldiers are German, and Britain has been invaded. The villagers react with surprising violence. The story is told in flashback, from a future in which Germany has been defeated.
We are used to thinking of British cinema in the realist mode, but the Ealing film Went the Day Well?, made in 1942, joins the askance, impolite, Romantic tradition that includes the work of Powell and Pressburger, Nicolas Roeg, Terence Davies, Derek Jarman and Ken Russell. It is based on a story by Graham Greene, but its inventiveness and non-conformism smell of its director, Alberto Cavalcanti. He was a precocious, globe-trotting, gay Brazilian architect-designer-producer-director-sound engineer who flitted through Europe’s avant garde movements in the 1920s. His film Rien que les Heures (1926) inspired Russian documentary-maker Dziga Vertov and led John Grierson to talent-spot him for Britain. Cavalcanti was a shot in the arm for British documentary—a filmmaker impatient with the real, in love with the sonic, poetic, rhythmic and discomforting.
Such an outsider was doomed to fall out with Grierson’s world and with Ealing, and Cavalcanti eventually went back to Brazil. But his 15 years in Britain alone show that he was one of the great directors. Now restored and re-released by the BFI, Went the Day Well? is a profound study of Englishness and a masterpiece of unease.
This article originally appeared in the July 2010 edition of Prospect.