The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

This classic from the directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (collectively known as ‘The Archers’) has had somewhat of a resurgence in years of late. Based on the 1881 Jacques Offenbach opera of the same name which in turn is inspired by stories from E.T.A Hoffmann, The Tales of Hoffmann is a performative experience that combines opera, dance and cinema creating a final product that is more than just a film. Expectedly stunning in its visuals, flawless soundtrack and larger than life cast, The Tales of Hoffmann follows the titular character (played by Robert Rounseville) who reminisces on three love affairs that ended sadly when reflecting on a new love that he has for the ballet dancer, Stella (Moira Shearer). The opera is sung in English rather than its original French with the soundtrack composed by Sir Thomas Beecham. If The Red Shoes showed the dark side of ballet in its subtleties through the psychological breakdown of its protagonist, The Tales of Hoffmann does so in a way that is more light-hearted and comical.

With the exception of a few minor changes, the film is relatively faithful to the opera and as such is sung throughout. Only Rounseville and Ann Ayars (who plays Hoffmann’s third lover, Antonia) sing as well as act their roles. Having other people dub for actors is not uncommon during this period in filmmaking with Powell and Pressburger even adding the singers onscreen for the curtain call credits at the end of the film. The Archers’ appreciation for the arts shines through as ever in their meticulous attention to detail. It is clear that everything is well thought out and that each movement is dictated by the music whilst still remaining true to their style.

The set-up of the three stories sees its characters discussing their plots against Hoffmann in a bid to ruin him of his pride, money and career as we see him grow from a perspective student to affluent poet in the film’s duration. Robert Rounseville is superb as the titular Hoffmann and draws the audience in even when he isn’t singing. He is brilliantly reactive and attentive to what the other characters are singing. Hoffmann thinks on his feet but is incredibly stubborn at the same time with his companion Nicklaus (Pamela Brown) trying to warn him of sinister plots that befall him. The villain in the main story, Lindorf, is played by Robert Helpmann who also plays the antagonists in the three segments: Coppelius, Dapertutto and Doctor Miracle. This decision to reflect the opera was a brave choice because if done wrong it could look too forced and too stagey but Helpmann’s performance is fantastic and he manages to bring different personalities and mannerisms to each character. Lindorf is much more controlled and quiet in comparison to Coppelius who is loud and erratic.

Playing the women we have Moira Shearer who plays both Stella and Hoffmann’s first live, the robotic, Olympia, Ludmilla Tcherina plays the Venetian courtesan Giulietta who seduces Hoffmann for his shadow and Ann Ayars as Antonia who is slowly succumbing to consumption. The role of Olympia particularly is hugely sought thanks to her aria which is a standout in both the opera and the film, therefore it makes sense that The Archers picked Shearer who had recently played the lead in their previous film, 1948’s hugely successful The Red Shoes. A big decision Powell and Pressburger made was to prioritise dance and so Shearer is able to focus on her strength while Liverpudlian coloratura soprano, Dorothy Bond provides the singing. It is a beautifully delicate rendition. Tcherina on the other hand is miles away from her previous support role in The Red Shoes where she played lovestruck dancer, Irina. Her performance of Giulietta is seductive and manipulative. She is guided by the light of the glittering gems that adorn her neck and does not fear the consequences for those around her. The final segment which sees Ann Ayers as the ill-fated Antonia who lives with her disapproving father, Crespel. Antonia longs to see Hoffmann again and it seems as though Hoffmann has finally found the love of his life but it isn’t to be. The scene in which Antonia is poisoned by the evil Doctor Miracle is fantastically shot as she runs across her bedroom, opens one door and ends up at the other side of the same room. It makes for a surreal and terrifying scene that escalates quickly in its tension.

The costume design and production design by Hein Heckroth earned well-deserved Oscar nominations and it’s easy to see why. The brilliant thing about Powell and Pressburger films is that they seem contained in their own universes and this is largely thanks in part to the crew who do an amazing job at creating the lavish sets. The Tales of Hoffmann is a film that screams opulence and requires multiple watches to appreciate every scene. Heckroth had won an Oscar for Best Art Direction for The Red Shoes and he does not falter here. From the delicacy of Olympia’s dress to the offlandish and dishevelled suit that Coppelius are among the costume highlights and the Venetian set is remarkably detailed and exquisite.

The Tales of Hoffmann demands the audience attention and makes for a fantastic viewing experience. It feels as though Powell and Pressburger had worked to get to this point where they act as both director and composers. Their passion is felt through the film and it is wonderfully characteristic and deserves the attention it has been receiving as of late.

Have you seen The Tales of Hoffmann? Let me know in the comments below!

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