A beautiful movie. The attention to period detail is incredible; it literally is 1784. At least, when it’s not 1933. The elegant transitions, via a dark and stormy evening, a doorway, and a particular curtain, require less suspension of disbelief than comparable time-warp devices in most sci-fi films. Leslie Howard, as Peter Standish, finding himself in the shoes of his ancestor, does a great job as a sort of bemused but startled time-traveler. Other than his obsession with his family history, it seems the purpose of his mission is to court the cousin his ancestor didn’t, but maybe should’ve married. His 1784 incarnation is betrothed to Kate (Valerie Taylor), but obviously prefers her sister Helen (Heather Angel). in fact, he and Helen are soul-mates as well as lovers.
Helen figures out his identity early on; and unlike Kate and the rest of her 18th-century clan, isn’t frightened by him. His problem is there’s not much he can do about Helen. He can’t stay with her in 1784, and he can’t take Helen back to 1933. Aside from all the freaky and somewhat humorous predicaments and faux pas that Peter finds himself stumbling into in Georgian times, the most captivating bit is Helen’s ability to experience the modern world by looking into his eyes. She sees a dizzy montage–starting with a cubistic array of skyscrapers, and exploding into jagged imagery of technology, speed, war, and crime.
On the other hand, once Peter’s found out to be an imposter and/or the devil, the past doesn’t look so rosy either. What’s confusing is what all this has to do with his ‘real’ relationship with Marjorie (Betty Lawford) in 1933. By obsessing about the past, Peter more or less spaces out on Marjorie; so nothing is resolved. He ought to just face up to what the cards have dealt him and get on with his actual life, no matter how beguiling the past. Or, more romantically, he does ditch Marjorie, but runs into and falls in love with a reincarnation of Helen; not necessarily the Helen of 1784, but seemingly the same person, a doppelganger.
So, for me, Berkeley Square, while unique and very entertaining, is still a bit disappointing. The premise delivers on the substance of living in the past, but without integrating the two eras thematically. Maybe it would be better to spend more time in 1933; as it is, 1784 is treated like a very long dream, with a few short breaks. Had there been more balance in the plot, a modern-era Helen character could’ve been slipped in and developed in time for something of a resolution. The simplest way to achieve this have Marjorie as the reincarnation of Helen.
Recommended for the brilliant period atmosphere and Leslie Howard’s nuanced performance. 7/10.