Sunday, 19 June 2022


Eric Ravilious, Submarine Commander Looking Through a Periscope, lithograph, 1940-41

I'm sure you've had the experience of watching the film version of a novel you love... and wishing you hadn't. It took me years to see The English Patient, so powerful was my own impression of the story, and I've still never seen The Great Gatsby on screen. I don't know if there's a film of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse out there, but if there is I would sell the telly to avoid watching them. On-screen voices and images tend to overwhelm our own more fragile, imagined versions of character and setting, which in some instances are as precious as real memories.

Having spent much of the last fifteen years building up my own impressions of Eric Ravilious and his world, I was apprehensive about seeing Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War. I knew it would get the story 'right', because Margy Kinmonth is a brilliant, diligent film-maker who involved ER's daughter (and expert fact-checker) Anne Ullmann throughout. But that's not really the point, is it? I've read all of ER's letters many times. They have a voice in my head, as do his wife Tirzah Garwood's letters and autobiography. I also have my own interpretation of the Ravilious story, one I have recounted to many thousands of people over the past decade and a half. Margy's version was bound to be different - how would I feel as it unfolded on the screen?

I needn't have worried. The first scene plunges us into a world of mingled sadness, beauty and joy. Pace and tone are spot on. Voices and images come and go, held lightly together by Edmund Joliffe's marvellous score - music I could imagine ER whistling as he worked. Watercolours, wood engravings and lithographs appear before us, hover for a moment or two, then fade away. The voices of Eric (Freddie Fox) and Tirzah (Tamsin Greig) convey the brightness - in all senses - of the characters. There are familiar faces - Anne herself, ER's grand-daughter Ella Ravilious, Grayson Perry, Alan Bennett - and one or two I wasn't expecting. Ai Weiwei's interjections are memorable. Anne Desmet is fantastic on wood engraving.

We see hands at work, cutting into wood blocks or painting, and these clips take on their own rhythm, flowing through the film. They help build up our picture of Ravilious the artist, and at the same time they add to the poetic structure of the film. It's a documentary, yes, but also a kind of evocation. The film reflects its subject not only in content but also in structure and style. ER's work in all media has this hard-to-define quality of blended rigour and lightness, and in its clarity and effortless flow the film captures this perfectly.

I can't wait for the London premiere on 27 June! 

A little later, on 13 July, I'll be joining director Margy Kinmonth for a Q&A plus screening at the Watershed, Bristol. This is one of numerous Q&As Margy will be doing around the country. Meanwhile the film will be showing at 60 cinemas nationwide, starting 1 July. Info here. Read more about the film here



Jill Leman said...

Thankyou James - You have voiced my concerns and now reassured I’m looking forward to seeing the film asap.

James Russell said...

Thanks Jill - hope you enjoy it!