Family Portrait

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

This review is taken from a longer essay on Humphrey Jennings that appears in the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge (2006). 

The common wisdom about Humphrey Jennings is that the end of the Second World War also signalled the end of his relevance as a filmmaker. Certainly he had some trouble finding his cinematic bearings at first, and he also returned to the eclectic interests (painting, Pandaemonium) that he had set aside for the duration of the war effort. But the greatness of his most celebrated films can blind us to the very real merit and interest of some of his so-called minor efforts. Family Portrait (1950), Jennings’ last film, fully belongs in the company of its more celebrated fellows. In some ways it is even more representative of its maker than the wartime pictures.

Here we find familiar things in place: the beautiful compositions, the carefully chosen musical material, the complex relationship between sound and image, the acute sense of history. It is in this latter respect that Jennings reveals something that we have not seen quite so clearly in the films before. He is both writer and director now, and the face that he exposes in these capacities is that of the scholar and the anthologist. Family Portrait contains the most dazzling examples of Jennings’ conceptual counterpoint, his exceedingly elaborate, yet wholly accessible interweaving of complex ideas and images, quotations and concepts. This presentation of the poetry and prose of English life, the relationship between vaulting vision and plain sense is perhaps the most representative of Jennings’ films, the one in which his sensibilities are most plainly, unadulteratedly revealed. As inflated as the use of the word may be it is still, undeniably, the work of a genius.

This was to be the last film.  In 1950, while scouting locations in Greece for a film on public health, Jennings was killed in a fall from a cliff. He was forty-three years old.