Went The Day Well?


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Went The Day Well
"This film has an atmosphere that effectively encourages viewers to rally round it, despite its failings."

With its evocative title (drawn from a 1918 epitaph - the question is asked by the fallen) and its innovative structure, Went The Day Well? is perhaps the foremost of the propaganda films produced to rally morale during the Second World War. It provides fascinating glimpses of some great performers at critical points in their careers, and its historical importance cannot be underestimated. Sadly, with all this going for it, it isn't nearly as strong as it should be.

Separating moral value from an appreciation of craft can be difficult, and this film has an atmosphere that effectively encourages viewers to rally round it, despite its failings. It's an effective piece of propaganda, heavy-handed in places (undermining the subtler approach of Graham Greene, on whose short story it was based) but with a quality that will appeal to fans of modern survivalist films. Indeed, in many ways it has more in common with Fifties paranoid science fiction thrillers and Noughties zombie films than with other pictures of its era. It's stylistically very modern. Not all viewers may notice that its opening scenes, looking back on the fictional past, are themselves set in a fictional future. There are a lot of 'what ifs?' running through it, and these help to give depth to an otherwise fairly straightforward thriller narrative.

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The stories centres on another fiction, the English village of Bramley End. Here the film stays fairly true to Greene's work and there's a sharply satirical look at class structures and expectations (the rich complain about rationing but enjoy sumptuous dinners), though it's never quite clear that the filmmakers get the joke. Unfortunately, time has made these characters seem so much more extreme that audiences today are likely to find humour in the wrong places, or find them insufferable. At least in the period before things get really nasty, one can find oneself rooting for the wrong side - though this isn't altogether bad, as it restores some balance and provides room for an appreciation of strategy.

Ranked against the villagers are German soldiers. At first they pass themselves off as English troops, but after they've established themselves and mapped out the village's defences (a warning to viewers that loose talk costs lives), their true identity emerges. There's a subplot involving a fifth columnist and ensemble drama as the various villagers scheme to thwart them, only gradually realising just how nasty things could get. Still, as the film sticks to censors' guidelines of the time, it only gets nasty offscreen (even a woman being slapped in the face is blurred out) and we can pretty much guess at the outset who will and who won't be allowed to die.

Went the day well? Well enough, perhaps; not as well as we might have hoped. The characters are not quite smart enough, personalities not sufficiently developed, and too much is given away too early for it to really grip. But it's certainly an interesting curiosity.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2010
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Local people come together to fight off the Nazis after the invasion of a small English town.
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Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

Writer: John Dighton, Diana Morgan, Angus MacPhail, based on the short story by Graham Greene

Starring: Leslie Banks, Marie Lohr, Hilda Bayley, Elizabeth Allan, Frank Lawton

Year: 1942

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


EIFF 2010

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