Dir. Henry Cornelius, UK, 1949, 84 mins.
Cast:Stanley Holloway, Hermione Baddeley, Betty Warren, Barbara Murray, Paul Dupuis, John Slater
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Despite a post-opening titles sequence which dedicates the film to the memory of rationing, a very recent memory and for many still a reality in 1949, Passport to Pimlico seems a far cry away from the darkly comic humour that is felt to define the greatest films in the substantial Ealing Studios canon. Another irregularity, made all the more pertinent through being released in the same year as Kind Hearts and Coronets, is the lack of the eccentric cast of characters normally associated with the Ealing comedies, with the notable exception of Margaret Rutherford’s batty historian Professor Hatton-Jones. Instead, the ensemble players of Passport to Pimlico take on very familiar personae within any post-war British community: the fishmonger, the policeman, the grocer. It is, however, this clear and keen parallel withBritain at that time that gives the film its unique charm and timeless resonance.
Some five years after the cessation of the Blitz, the clean-up operation is still very much in progress for the residents of Pimlico. Rationing is still in force, rubble strews streets lined with the shells of wrecked buildings, and the last unexploded bombs are about to be ceremoniously exploded. Progress is frustratingly slow, as steadfast local Arthur Pemberton finds when the small-minded, penny-pinching local council vetoes his idea to build a children’s playground on a former bomb-site. However, after Pemberton fall down a crater and discovers a subterranean chamber filled with treasure, a convoluted and mercifully brisk paper chase sees the residents of Pimlico learn that their area in fact belongs to the Duke of Burgundy. At first the community relishes the new-found social, and more importantly economic, freedoms of being officially Bergundian land, yet when they are islanded and ostracized from the rest ofLondonthey find themselves in the midst of a struggle to survive as an autonomous collective.
The film uses its overtly comedic allegory to avoid controversy in equating London with Europe under the Nazi occupation, but in a concept which sees the plucky and quirkily British Community of Pimlico isolated from and pitted against a superior force besieging them with a view to conquer the implications are very clear. Only by working together as a community and collectively tightening their belts can the residents of Pimlico maintain their independence, and the means by which they achieve this are heavily reflective of the heroism of ordinary British communities during wartime. Food and water are rationed down to the tin and the thimble, barbed wire fences are erected around the borough, the residents’ children are evacuated and when they visit a cinema in Piccadilly Circus are treated to a spoof propaganda film advocating the courage of Pimlico’s struggle. The attractiveness of this community spirit, of the collective banding together against aggression and hardship, is two-fold: the heir apparent to the Dukedom of Burgundy (Dupuis) falls in love with his new inheritance in everyway, and as an exotic outsider he shed light upon the respect and admiration with which the Allies, say, viewed the UK. The charm also comes from the ingenuity of Pimlico’s schemes to stay ahead of the game, most hilariously in their farcical, and ultimately doomed, solution to their water shortage.
That having been said, this is by no means an austerely allegorical fable about the wartime spirit of British communities: this is a first-rate comedy as prescient in its whimsical deconstruction of the unofficial British institutions of faff and palaver today as it was when first released. The title refers to the physical and administrative divide of Pimlico into a foreign territory in the film, and every manner of resulting lunacy that can derive from this idea is effectively and gloriously milked to the full. In consistently brilliant comic structuring every action has a consequence, and the set-ups pay off every time. Pimlico is no longer bound by English law, so all the police are removed for the area. Rationing no longer applies, so a heaving black market springs up overnight. A customs system is set up to stem the flow of contraband, but the simultaneously introduced immigrations system bars the residents from entering their own homes without a permit. The final, biggest laugh sees a running joke about a British heatwave played to wonderfully idiosyncratic pathetic fallacy when Pimlico again pronounces itself to be British…
Charming without being quaint or twee, Passport to Pimlico is a first-rate classic, and anyone interested in British cinema should certainly have it on their to-see list. Passport to Pimlico has been restored and re-released on DVD as part of the “Made In Britain” season, which is also seeing the return to cinemas of Hobson’s Choice, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Quatermass and the Pitt and The Plague of the Zombies.