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Anders Thomas Jensen
Jens Jørn Spottag,
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Captures the bawdy bustle of Chaucer, but not the sublime.
Every Christmas, people complain about the dire schedules, but among the exhaustedly-repeated films and bloated 'specials' can be uncovered animated gems like this. I don't know why Christmas should be deemed appropriate for a profusion of 'adult' cartoons, but the viewer wins regardless, because they are daring, inventive and witty in themselves, even without a festive background of mediocrity to shine against.
I watched the first part of this last year, but only finished it last night because I'd lost the tape. I'm afraid I didn't dare watch it in its original Middle English, an option admirably open to me. To my eternal discredit, when I was at college, despite the best proselytising efforts of an amiably barmy lecturer to affirm his bawdiness, flexibility and great humour, I'd always avoided Chaucer because, you know, 14th century English. What does it mean? How can you even read it without a luggage load of notes? So I can't really discuss the film's success in visualising Chaucer's text.
What I can tell you is that it does achieve an extraordinary recreation of medieval life, in all its squalor, bustle, yet fertile energy. Far from being the received scowling monks and yobbish yahoos, Chaucer's pilgrims are recognisably human in their flaws, desires and talents, yet strictly grounded in the medieval social order that produced them. Each story they tell to ease the boredom of the journey to Canterbury, reflects, however obliquely, both its teller and his time.
The framing narrative of the pilgrimmage is told with puppets, but each tale utilises a different mode of animation. Being an expert neither in animation or Chaucer, I cannot tell whether there is an apt connnection between form and content. But the fluidity of each story; the ability to depict experience, emotion and event unavailable to live action; the exquisite, glaring colours; the remarkable draughtsmanship alternating between painstaking detail and broad flourishes are all a joy to behold.
As are the stories. The second part features a rich old blind man cuckolded by his young wife; a TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE-like tale of gold greed and murder; and an aristocratic Romance about a loyal wife who is forced to sleep with a courtier after a supernatural miracle. The mixture of bawdy comedy and touching pathos is superbly contrived.
If I have a complaint (or two) it is that it is often difficult to hear the dialogue (realistic but ANNOYING), and that the arrival in Canterbury fails to grasp a sublime that is Chaucer's counterpoint to earthiness. But then we have the Archers' immortal A CANTERBURY TALE, so that's alright than.
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