Monday 05 June 1995
Some say it is the Greek light; Durrell called it ''the Eye'', a living body aware of the dimensions of human existence. For Dilys Powell it was the rescuing of memory from the pain of personal tragedy: ''When I search in my memory for the forms of the past it is as if I were leaning over a sea-pool among rocks. The water is sunlit and there are clear shapes beneath it. The outline of pebbles and rocks is sharp; I can see life moving. But there are dark grottoes too where the seaweed drapes its curtains; and as I fixedly look the edges blur and quaver, the weeds toss in a flow of water, and now I can distinguish with certainty nothing.''
Born in 1901, Powell was educated at Bournemouth High School and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she met Humfry Payne, who was studying Greats at Christ Church. A man extravagantly tall, austerely thin, with striking good looks and an impetuous delight as much in Aeschylus as in midnight escapades, he caught her heart before setting out for Athens, determined upon an archaeologist's life. Two years later, in 1926, they married. It was always something of a four-way love affair, for in the interim Payne had lost his heart to Greece, while in 1928 Powell joined the Sunday Times and was determined not to surrender her chance to write professionally. Though later Payne became Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, she always refused to live with him full-time in Greece.
She could be jealous of her rival's attraction, but until 1936 she often shared Payne's attentions at excavation sites and during long walks over the Greek mountains. Not long after Easter in that year, however, at Mycenae, after some slight lesion at the knee spread blood poisoning throughout his body, he died.
That shock wed her forever to the ground in which she buried him, though it began as a desolate devotion. She told the story first in The Traveller's Journey is Done (1943); but while she struggled to overcome his sudden death the tragedy was becoming general. Separated from Greece by war, then by the bitterness of civil war, she, like the Greeks themselves was estranged from places and friends and from her own memories. In the serene and disciplined prose of An Affair of the Heart (1957) she addressed that larger theme, drawing a moving portrait of landscapes, history and personal encounters, remembered, revisited and reconciled, in the process surmounting personal tragedy to reach a deeper love.
From the vantage point of The Villa Ariadne (1973), where Sir Arthur Evans had lived while excavating the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete and which she had first visited with Payne, she wove a pattern of ancient and recent history from the chiaroscuro of her recollections. The villa was home to their friend John Pendlebury, the site archaeologist, until he died a cruel death at enemy hands after organising guerrilla resistance against the German invasion; then for General Kreipe, the occupying commander of the island, it served as headquarters until his kidnap by Patrick Leigh Fermor (who later became another of her friends) in one of the greatest feats of its kind during the Second World War.
The characters and incidents inhabiting Dilys Powell's experience were the stuff of films, and that sea-pool into which she looked, its images one moment sharp, another blurred, but in which she could always see life moving, found its counterpart in the cinema screen. ''In a review I try to see a kind of shape'', she once said, adding, ''I love the Westerns very much. It seems to me that movement against a background is the basis of the cinema.'' She never took notes, and her 1956 review of The Searchers, for example, has very much that sea-pool glimpse of intensified reality: ''A figure, anonymous in the blurring light, waves from the immense shoulder of a rock . . . a streaked indifferent red sky leans over a plain where suddenly, far off, birds fly up and dust swirls''.
Her passion for films was no less than her passion for Greece, and she estimated that she had seen ''tens of thousands of films'', still viewing them into her nineties at the rate of five a week. ''I suppose I began as most young people do, showing off and trying to make jokes, but then it began insensibly to dawn on me that being a critic was not criticising in the cant sense of the word.'' Rather her reviews had a sense of nurturing love for the cinema, as though, Frederick Raphael observed, ''her fondest hope, even if she is disappointed, is that you will redeem yourself, quickly, by doing something else, something better.''
Dilys Powell began her career as a film critic on the Sunday Times in 1939, encouraged by its literary editor, Leonard Russell, who in 1943 became her second husband. It was a position she held until 1979, when she stopped writing about new films for the paper; but three years earlier she had started writing about films on television, and continued to do so until the end of her life; her last piece, on Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, appeared in the Sunday Times yesterday. In 1979 she became film reviewer for Punch, and remained so until that magazine folded in 1992. Her collected reviews were published in 1989 as The Golden Screen.
The span of Dilys Powell's career was such that not only did she write up Stage Coach and Gone With the Wind when they first came out, but she must have been unique in being able to review her own first reactions to Gone With the Wind when it was first re-issued in 1989. Clark Gable's performance, she decided, was better than she had given him credit for in 1940, but she still did not think much of the film: ''You come out of Gone With the Wind'', she wrote, ''feeling that history isn't so disturbing after all. One can always make a dress out of a curtain.''
Elizabeth Dilys Powell, writer: born 20 July 1901; Film Critic, the Sunday Times 1939-79 (Films on Television 1976-95); member, Board of Governors, British Film Institute 1948-52, Fellow 1986; President, Classical Association 1966-67; CBE 1974; Film Critic, Punch 1979-92; Honorary Fellow, Somerville College, Oxford 1991; married 1926 Humfry Payne (died 1936), 1943 Leonard Russell (died 1974); died London 3 June 1995.
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