Who’s up for a ghost story at Christmas? Plenty of people, judging by the British television schedules, with adaptations of MR James and Susan Hill jostling for position alongside Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight’s revisionist A Christmas Carol. The dark, chilly, rainy nights lend themselves perfectly to a fireside tale, yet there is also something more optimistic and less threatening in the ghost story tradition. As Dickens knew full well, a ghost story can be about atonement, tidying up old business and preparing yourself for a new start in the new year.
This is where The Halfway House, reissued on Blu-Ray by StudioCanal, comes in. This early Ealing film features spirits more akin to Brigadoon than The Shining: nobody will be scared, and director Basil Dearden isn’t going for fear anyway. It’s the story of a group of recognisable types – a burned-out orchestra conductor, a divorcing couple, two bereaved parents, a swindler and a disgraced army Colonel – trying to rediscover their passion for life by visiting a small inn in the Welsh countryside.
They discover a lot more besides. As soon as a character says “Time seems to stand still here in the valley”, viewers will cotton on to the titular Halfway House’s secret. Viewers back in 1944 may have expected Dearden’s film to unfold along the lines of other picturesque rural Welsh dramas like Ealing’s previous The Proud Valley. Today, we see premonitions of other, later ghost stories in it. There’s a moment where a spectral woman fails to cast a shadow, like the inhabitants of the hotel in Last Year at Marienbad. The film’s central reveal, too, must have been an influence on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
The Halfway House is overshadowed by the much more influential ghost story Dearden made for Ealing the following year – Dead of Night. It’s not as confident as that film, showing Britain’s emblematic film studio in the throes of working out its style. The acting, while not exactly bad, is stagey, without the jolts of energy that the likes of Alec Guinness and Alistair Sim would administer to later films. It sometimes over-stretches itself; a scene involving a runaway bicycle uses back-projection that calls to mind Richard Ayoade pedalling away in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. And the tone can be a bit sentimental, in exactly the way that Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t.
And yet there is still something beguiling about it. Part of its charm is simply the charm of Ealing – despite Sir Michael Balcon’s famous disdain for period films, the movies he produced have accumulated a powerful nostalgic charge for generations of Britons. The other fascinating aspect is addressed by Matthew Sweet in an interview on the disc’s extras. The opening credits of Dearden’s film describe it as “suggested by” Derek Ogden’s play The Peaceful Inn, a play Sweet notes was excoriated by no less a critic than George Orwell. Orwell was affronted by Ogden’s refusal to address Britain’s entry into World War II, arguing that its embrace of apparently apolitical nostalgia at a time of national crisis was at best indulgent, at worst undermining the war effort.
Perhaps Orwell was imagining something along the lines of Ealing’s 1942 masterpiece Went the Day Well?, which similarly runs off the belief that there is something uncannily, viscerally wrong about Nazis in the Great British countryside. But Went the Day Well? is a film about a nation facing a challenge to its existence. The Halfway House was released in the same year as Humphrey Jennings’s classic propaganda film A Diary for Timothy, and it shares its central concern: yes, this is all going to end soon. But what kind of world will we go back to?
It’s here, rather than its supernatural content, that The Halfway House offers true chills. Watched at a point where Britain seems more divided than at any other time in living memory, it shows that even when we had a common enemy there were still schisms to be healed. Went the Day Well?‘s Nazi invasion of the Home Counties has been averted, but there are people here who would have collaborated with an occupying force had it come to that. How do we live with them? How do they live with themselves? Ireland’s neutrality is criticised in bitter terms by Françoise Rosay’s French exile, who points out that at least her country fought back. And the name of that burned-out orchestra conductor who opens the film? David Davies. Time truly does stand still here in the valley.