By David Katz
Originally produced by Ealing Studios just as the Second World War was reaching its final stages, the film heaves with pervasive anxiety, with the threat of losing loved ones and with the future of the British Isles itself jangling in the air. But The Halfway House begins unassumingly, displaying little of the atmosphere that makes the film so memorable in its closing stages. The action darts from a Cardiff concert hall to a nearby port, from a prison to the plush London west end; introducing the primary characters who will eventually convene at the Halfway House. First we’re introduced to an overworked orchestra conductor with an unspecified illness (Esmond Knight), urged to take a sabbatical or risk his career. Then we meet Joanna (Sally Ann Howes), a young girl desperately trying to bring her rowing parents (Richard Bird and Valerie White) back together. Also among the troupe is Harry Meadows (Tom Walls) and his French wife Alice (Françoise Rosay), a seafaring couple grieving for their son who has died at war. So we have a selection of well-drawn characters, all nursing some sense of trauma brought upon by the war and the modern world, decamping to the plush Welsh inn of the title. For all the accommodation’s niceties, however, we soon realise that things are really not what they seem.
The film is set in 1943 and at that time the house has supposedly been burned and destroyed by an air-raid attack. When the characters arrive however the house is standing as if nothing had happened, a genuine ghost of itself; as though it were1942 forever, and the landlord and his daughter (played by real life father and daughter Mervyn and Glynis Johns) tend the house as normal. The guests start to realise their unusual predicament as they notice that the landlord – in his incarnation as a ghost – casts no shadow on the ground, and that the house is strewn with references in newspapers dating back to June 1942. The radio presenters seem to be a bit behind the times too. This narrative twist turns the characters’ dwelling into more than just a simple environment; the setting adopts the quality of a more profound metaphor in which these grief-stricken guests go to a safe haven where time stands still and the pain of mourning is suspended. Dearden’s direction is skilful enough that a potentially dry propaganda message about binding together in the toughest of times is transferred into something more poignant. As much as the conclusion seeks to spur the war effort and British resolve on, the film acknowledges the collective trauma of war with true humility; it is overall a compassionate story, trying to find a tonic for loss whilst still being wedded to a statement of national pride.
The Halfway House is not exactly what you’d call a classic – it doesn’t call for canonisation in the manner of later Ealing classics like Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955). Contemporary viewers though will appreciate how it sits amongst various cinematic traditions of the country house setting, ghost stories, and narrative propaganda. The rowdy and chaotic mix of social classes, all ensconced in a comfortable rural retreat evokes the spirit of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and, with its sequences of piano playing jollity, Robert Altman’s modern classic Gosford Park (2001). Observe too how smoothly these settings transition into the paranormal, stemming perhaps from Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw; The Halfway House certainly derives much of its success from how it merges this realistic setting with dark fantasy in the vein of James’s great work. What makes this film truly unique, however, is the deftness with which it allies these modes with something truly moving – a war-torn country retreating into a fantastical realm to heal its sores.
The Halfway House is available, digitally restored, on DVD from Monday 20th June.