Criterion compiles four wartime classics from Lean and Coward starting with "In Which We Serve" (1942, 114 minutes). Based on the actual sinking of the British destroyer HMS Kelly in 1941, Coward scripts this gripping story of a ship and co-directs with Lean. "This Happy Breed" (1944, 111 minutes) is the chronicle of twenty years in a British household from the close of WWI to the dawning of WWII. "Blithe Spirit" (1945, 96 minutes) is adapted from Coward's smash hit and stars Rex Harrison as the debonair husband haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife (Hammond). Finally, "Brief Encounter" (1945, 86 minutes) can barely contain the swooning emotions between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, whose encounter on a train platform leads to forbidden passion.
Why we love it
Lean kicks off his storied career behind the camera with this sublime quartet of films that blend the epic and the intimate with impeccable ease. "In Which We Serve" presages the vast canvases of his work in the '50s and '60s ("Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia") and is a stirring story of patriotism. Of note is the masterful turn of Coward as the stoic, naval Captain who leads his men with strength and dignity. Other highlights include the unsinkable Margaret Rutherford as the medium Madame Arcati in the frothy comedy "Blithe Spirit" and the stiff-upper-lipped pragmatism of Newton and Johnson in the affecting, domestic drama "This Happy Breed." "Brief Encounter" triumphs on all levels: the contained performances of Howard and Johnson, the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and not least of all, Rachmaninoff's soaring Piano Concerto #2. Nothing could be more delightful — and more British — than this most winning collaboration.