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Family Portrait (1950)

Main image of Family Portrait (1950)
35mm, black and white, 24 mins
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyWessex Film Productions
Executive ProducerIan Dalrymple
ScreenplayHumphrey Jennings
PhotographyMartin Curtis
MusicJohn Greenwood

Meditations on the 'English tradition' and achievements through the centuries.

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The last film that Humphrey Jennings completed before his untimely death in 1950 (his work in progress, The Good Life, was eventually completed by another director), Family Portrait was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Its official task was to cheer up a nation that had been exhausted, impoverished and in many ways demoralized, both by six years of all-out war and by the drab and anti-climactic post-war years, in which wartime austerity measures had been continued and threatened to carry on forever. The Festival was at once an effort to promote high spirits and a boast of great things to come, as the country forged ever better and brighter new technologies that would make it a world leader in a new way.

This was not a promising brief for any honest soul, and in the hands of a lesser director, Family Portrait might have been little more than a smug, shallow cross between a tourist board travelogue and a corporate promotional short. Indeed, until quite recently, the film was often dismissed in just those terms. But while it is true that this last film lacks the passionate intensity of Jennings' wartime efforts, it is a far stranger and more absorbing work than its slight reputation suggests. Its theme, borrowed from E.M. Forster's maxim "only connect", is that Britain has always been at its most creative when two different modes of thought, skill, or technique have been brought together - for example, the vision of James Watt imagining a condenser, and the skill of the iron workers who made that vision a reality.

This supposedly anodyne work is shot through with profound and esoteric scholarship about science, industry, legal institutions, social history and poetry. It needs to be seen as an offshoot of Jennings' epic work on the Industrial Revolution, Pandaemonium, and though it makes a quiet end to a remarkable career, it is a distinguished one.

Kevin Jackson

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

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Video Clips
1. A family reunion (2:59)
2. The outside world (1:43)
3. The new thing (2:35)
Complete film (23:14)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)