Colin Low II

film 5 of 6

In the Labyrinth

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

To start with one of this method’s most noted proponents, this electrifying production leaves all of Brian de Palma’s various split and multi-frame affectations in the dust. In fact, it obliterates Brian de Palma entire. And Abel Gance. And let’s add the Soviets.

Getting carried away? I am trying to communicate how historically, how matchlessly good this film is. Much of its moral heft and cinematic substance comes from the Roman Kroitor/Colin Low/Hugh O’ Connor triumvirate, not to mention the very particular contributions of consultant Northrop Frye (!). Many movies take stabs at or wander briefly across the paths of archetype. In the Labyrinth is the real thing, by a combination of deepest scholarly insight, most thorough cinematic expertise, and by the wind blowing as it lists. (I highly recommend Gary Evans’ In the National Interest: a Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989, which gives a very detailed and stirring account of the whole production.)

So superb! For all that, though, this great film’s final triumph has to belong to Tom Daly. This long-time NFB stalwart is one of the great figures in all of film history, an stock-room bureaucrat who rose to a position of practically Socratic influence and benevolence. In so many key NFB (Unit B) productions, Daly worked the unusual and inspiring combination of studio head and plain ol’ cutter. The cinematography of In the Labyrinth is as beautiful as cinematography can possibly be, and its beautiful images are always in the service of content (the emigrants!) that is more important than the way it’s being captured. But after all that, it’s in the editing!

Through the virtuosic—mind melting, really—utilization of five screens (or four, or three, two, or one, all depending on what he want to say) Daly renders entire scenes in one simultaneous instant. He actually illustrates most all of Sergei Eisenstein’s methods of montage (as set forth in Film Form, 1949), but with more fairness and feeling than Eisenstein was ever able to muster. (Not that S.E. didn’t have principalities to fight against! We hasten to admire his superb mind, his wonderful writing, his deep early convictions, and how beautifully they were played out in 1929’s Old and New.) Daly makes use of an unprecedented kind of dissolve from one location, from one idea to another. More, he presents more than one idea in tandem, resulting either in a luminously palpable emotional fullness, or, if we analyze, a full philosophical totality.

Virtuosity, yes, but how quietly! In the Labyrinth is what an adult film looks like; there’s not an ounce of ego in it. Except for the way that it might motivate and inspire its discerning, humbled, grateful viewer. This isn’t the only item of evidence, but it’s the coup de grâce. In their time, for a time, I think that these were the world’s greatest filmmakers. (Special commendation, also, for the great Board composer Eldon Rathburn’s very moving musical score.)