Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Based on the Gustave Fluabert novel Madame Bovary, Ryan’s Daughter is the story of a young Irish woman who has an extramarital affair with a British officer that causes trouble in her home where lots of morality is questioned. Directed by David Lean and screenplay by Robert Bolt, the film is a loose take on the Flaubert novel as it is set during World War I amidst a sense of cultural and political tension between the British and the Irish. Starring Sarah Miles, Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Christopher Jones, and Leo McKern. Ryan’s Daughter is a ravishing but flawed film from David Lean.
Set in an isolated village near the Atlantic coast in Ireland during World War I in the backdrop of escalating tension between the British and Irish. The film revolves around a young woman who marries a widowed schoolteacher as she suddenly falls for a wounded British officer as it causes problems once the affair is known by the locals. It’s a film that is quite simple but it’s told in a broad scale as Robert Bolt’s script has this very unique structure as it plays into the life of Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) as the first act is about her marrying the middle-aged schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) while the second act introduces the character of the British officer Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones). The third act doesn’t just relate to the unveiling of the affair but also a key incident that relates to this tension between the British and Irish.
The script doesn’t just explore the tension between Britain and Ireland where the Irish are upset at the presence of the British in their land. It also plays into Rosy who is fond of Shaughnessy who is just a lonely widower that is devoted to teaching children where she falls for him and things seem fine. Yet, Rosy feels like marrying Shaughnessy isn’t enough until her meeting with Major Doryan at her father’s pub is where things get really interesting story wise but there’s some big flaws as it relates to the Major Doryan character. While it is revealed that Major Doryan is there to watch over the base, he is someone that comes off as underwritten as it is obvious that he is an officer with a bad leg and some post-traumatic stress disorder but he’s never fully fleshed out other than just some object of desire for Rosy whereas Shaughnessy is a far more interesting character who really has a lot more to offer in terms of character and in development.
Another issue with the script is the character of the village idiot Michael (John Mills) as he is someone that is just there that would be a witness or would do something in a form of pantomime as it’s an odd character. One of which raises questions into why is there character there and what is his importance to the story? He’s someone that never really connects with anything that happens where it’s just one of these things that are very distracting while the portrayal of the villagers who would act very savagely in the third act also become problematic. Though there is a valid reason into their anger, it shows them more as monsters who ignore the idea of reason as the one character in the film that is sort of the film’s conscience is Father Hugh Collins (Trevor Howard).
David Lean’s direction is mesmerizing for not just the look of the locations near the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland but also in creating a world that is large though it is set in this very small town that is remote from the rest of the world. The usage of wide and medium shots don’t make the locations an integral part of the story but it also plays into a world that is changing around this town that really has very little clue on what is happening outside of the world. From the scenes of the beach, cliffs, and mountains outside of the town, it’s a world that is peaceful while the town itself looks dreary and detached from the world as it reflects on a world that Rosy and Shaughnessy live in where they’re part of a community but are also very different. While it is clear that Father Collins is sort of this moral leader that the town has to abide to, he is also the one person for Rosy and Shaughnessy can confide to as it adds to the drama.
The direction also play into elements of fantasy and reality as it relates to what is going on in the film’s second half where Shaughnessy begins to suspect that something isn’t right in his marriage. The usage of close-ups and medium shots add to some of the emotional drama while there are also these moments that showcases the dramatic tension within Rosy who feel like she is torn in her devotion towards her husband and the passion she has for Major Doryan. Lean’s approach to humor for the scenes involving Michael don’t work as it is one of the key faults of the film. Some of the elements in the third act as it relates to the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) and British forces do go overboard once the villagers become savages over Rosy’s affair with Doryan also gets over-the-top where they would also target Shaughnessy. Overall, Lean creates a beautiful and engaging but messy film about an Irish woman’s affair with a British soldier during World War I.
Cinematographer Freddie Young does incredible work with the film‘s photography in terms of its gorgeous scenery of the locations as well as creating moods in some of the interiors and scenes set at night or in the rain as Young‘s work is a major highlight. Editor Norman Savage does excellent work with the editing in creating a few montages for some of Major Doryan‘s flashbacks as well as some rhythmic cuts for some of the dramatic moments in the film. Production designer Stephen B. Grimes, with set decorator Josie MacAvin and art director Roy Walker, does amazing work with the look of the small town as well as Shaughnessy schoolhouse and the pub where Rosy‘s father works and runs.
Costume designer Jocelyn Rickards does nice work with the costumes from some of the stylish dresses that Rosy wears to the suits of Shaughnessy and the uniforms of the British officers. Sound editors Ernie Grimsdale and Winston Ryder do superb work with the sound from the way the wind and storms sound on location as well as the raucous parties that goes on in the village. The film’s music by Maurice Jarre is brilliant for its orchestral-based score that has some unique touches in its string arrangements where it’s playful at times while having some military-inspired marches and some dramatic pieces though there’s moments that do feel odd in terms of where the music is used in the narrative.
The film’s cast include some notable small performances from Barry Jackson as a British corporal, Evin Crowley as the local lush Moureen Cassidy, Gerald Smith as the camp caretaker Captain Smith, Brian O’Higgins as the British sympathizer Constable O’Connor, Arthur O’Sullivan and Marie Kean as the McCardles who are very supportive of the IRB cause, and Barry Foster as the IRB leader Tim O’Leary who wants the British out of Ireland as he tries to start a guerilla war against them. Leo McKern is superb as Rosy’s father Tom Ryan as a pub owner who is also an informant for the British as he would often give them bad information until one key moment that would showcase some shame and cowardice for what he really is.
John Mills as the mentally-challenged village idiot Michael is really one of the most baffling performances in the film has he serves very little purpose to the story while being this unnecessary distraction as it’s just odd in a bad way. Christopher Jones’ performance as Major Doryan is just terrible as it’s just bland while Jones never does much to flesh out the character while he is too restrained his role as he rarely speaks (under the dubbed voice of Julian Holloway) where he is just very unsympathetic and never does enough to display the troubles of his PTSD.
Trevor Howard is brilliant as Father Hugh Collins as the film’s conscience of sorts as a man of great moral who understands Rosy’s struggle to be faithful while being aware of what is going on as he realizes, despite his sympathies for IRB, that Rosy and Shaughnessy are being victimized over nothing. Sarah Miles is amazing as Rosy Ryan as a young woman who falls and marries the middle-aged Shaughnessy while having an affair with Major Doryan as this young woman who is conflicted in her feelings and coming to terms with the envy she had received from locals. Finally, there’s Robert Mitchum in a remarkable performance as Charles Shaughnessy as a kind and widowed schoolteacher who marries Rosy as he’s a man of old values but is willing to make changes where later copes with what is happening as it is a restrained but touching performance from Mitchum in one of his underrated performances in his career.
Ryan’s Daughter is a stellar but underwhelming romantic-epic film from David Lean. While it has some beautiful images from Freddie Young’s cinematography in its Super Panavision 70 format as well as great performances from Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, and Trevor Howard. It’s a film that doesn’t do enough to create a compelling story while having some strange choices in some of the characters and motivations. In the end, Ryan’s Daughter is a rapturous but extremely flawed film from David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - This Happy Breed - Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - The Sound Barrier - Hobson’s Choice - (Summertime (1955 film)) - The Bride on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - A Passage to India - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
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