Saturday, April 08, 2006


Lean was so much better when he was lean

By Edward Copeland
The legend has it that David Lean was so scarred by Pauline Kael's brutal take on his 1970 movie Ryan's Daughter that it kept him out of the director's chair for more than a decade, until he returned with 1984's A Passage to India. Alas, Kael's review was not included in her collection For Keeps, so I've never read it in all its glory and her only comment in 5001 Nights at the Movies is that it is "Gush made respectable by millions of dollars tastefully wasted." I don't know if the legend is true, but having recently watched Ryan's Daughter for the first time, I have to think that Kael did Lean and audiences a favor because as he became epic obsessed, his greatness diminished, especially when compared to his earlier, smaller and brilliant films.

Something happens when great filmmakers get the bloat bug and it's a shame that more can't go back to small after they've gone gargantuan (Peter Jackson, I'm looking in your general direction). Don't get me wrong — I love Lawrence of Arabia — but for me, that's the only one of his big pictures that really works (though A Passage to India is passable enough). Even Lawrence lags in the second half, but Bridge on the River Kwai doesn't hold up well and I found Doctor Zhivago damn near interminable aside from Rod Steiger's great performance.

However, I'm here to discuss Ryan's Daughter which is the biggest epic crime committed by Lean — forcing a simple (though dull) tale of a love triangle into a three-hour format because by 1970, that's the only thing he knew how to do. There also is a side diversion into early IRA stuff, but it seems present only to pad out the running time which was padded as it was. Robert Mitchum suffers through a less-than-convincing Irish accent as his new bride (Sarah Miles) suddenly decides to take up with a British soldier, prompting a Scarlet Letter-ish outcry from the townfolk, who also blame her for ratting out an IRA soldier.

As one would expect, the film is pretty — including many shots of raindrops falling off leaves during a love scene that Terrence Malick would love — but pretty images alone do not a good movie make. The real embarrassment of the film is the Oscar-winning performance by John Mills as the village idiot which may well be the worst Oscar-winning performance I've ever seen — and that says a lot. Hidden somewhat beneath makeup, Mills' character basically has two expressions: fear and glee, though I guess you could argue that is one more expression than Charlize Theron could muster under her Monster makeup, thought at least Theron had the help of being able to speak. This all seems so tragic to me when you look back at Lean's early filmography, which holds up so much better than what he made once the epic bug bit him.

1942: Co-directed with Noel Coward, In Which We Serve is a dramatic and touching story of a British naval ship with some haunting images that I don't dare spoil for those who haven't seen it.

1945: Lean produced the fluffy Blithe Spirit, which is worth watching if only for Margaret Rutherford's absolutely brilliant comic performance.

That same year, Lean directed the absolutely sublime romantic classic Brief Encounter whose influence has resonated through the ages in forms as diverse as the play turned movie Same Time, Next Year and the schlock novel turned movie The Bridges of Madison County. It also features great performances by Trevor Howard and the now nearly forgotten Celia Johnson.

1946: Lean made the first of his two great Dickens' adaptations, Great Expectations, and for my money it remains the best film version of a Charles Dickens novel ever put on screen. It also contains a John Mills performance worth praising as Pip. (Mills also gave a memorable early performance in In Which We Serve).

1948: Lean scored another win with Dickens, this time with Oliver Twist. Despite the usual criticism of the Fagin character that accompanies all versions of this tale, Alec Guinness is positively brilliant in the role.

Admittedly, I haven't seen his works between 1949 and 1954, but in 1955 he made the bittersweet Summertime with Katharine Hepburn as a spinster finding romance in Venice — and after that, it was epics all the way and I think, aside from Lawrence of Arabia, film lovers are the ones who suffered the most by his conversion to the HUGE. I picked on Peter Jackson earlier about this, but I think it could be applied to Martin Scorsese and others as well. Imagine if Scorsese stepped back from his epic phase and went back to a smaller type of film that made his reputation in the first place. I don't know if The Departed will be that film — but I can hope.

As far as Ryan's Daughter goes, if you haven't seen it, despite the deluxe 2-DVD treatment it has recently received, save your time.

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Kael's full review of "Ryan's Daughter" is in her "Deeper Into Movies" collection. I'm not sure if the book's available in the US, but at least in Australia, it's very easy to come by.

And here's the Amazon link for it:
I am of the opinion that there are directors capable of doing fine films that, when they meet success, they have a tendency to overblown things, which causes them to do movies which are usually over-long, over-expensive and in many instances lesser than their early films. So I endorse your views, particuarly on "Ryan's Daughter" and "Doctor Zhivago".

Re John Mills: I couldn't agree more, I am awfully uncomfortable with his "stock village idiot" performance... an actor of greater range and imagination could have made more of it (I suppose the Queen knights thespians for their hability to play always an unending series of colonel roles on a row)
EC wrote:
"That same year, Lean directed the absolutely sublime romantic classic Brief Encounter whose influence has resonated through the ages in forms as diverse as the play turned movie Same Time, Next Year and the schlock novel turned movie The Bridges of Madison County."

And, more recently, "Brokeback Mountain."

I just caught "Brief Encounter" for the first time on TCM last week. It really is a lovely film.
I guess I agree with most everything you say here, but still, I am bummed that he didn't live long enough to finish Nostromo, and it surely would have had a case of the Brobdingnags.
One of the best things about "Zhivago" is Julie Christie's performance, and one of the most disappointing things about "Ryan's Daughter" is that it fails to do for Sarah Miles what "Zhivago" did for Christie.

Still, I'd take either one of those films over "This Happy Breed" an early badly dated wartime propaganda film written by Noel Coward in which Lean dully attempts to celebrate the ordinary Englishman (when Lean was plainly more interested in extraordinary Englishmen -- like T.E. Lawrence).
I love Brief Encounter. It's kinda funny, a few weeks ago after I burned a copy, I took it over to some friends and insisted they watch it. It was a change of pace, because usually with this particular group we watch some kind of actiony guy flick. I was sweating at first, but the movie took hold and went over well. This time around I was a little surprised that I didn't feel much sympathy for Trevor Howard. He's the one who instigates the whole mess. I was rooting for them to not see each other. Maybe it's because we never follow his side of the story, or maybe the fact that Johnson's husband is one of the most likeable and sympathetic husbands I've ever seen portrayed on film. I also love how the small subplot with Albert and Myrtle is somehow the perfect echo of the main plot. And yeah, I love Celia Johnson in the movie. She was no great beauty, but when I watch her in this movie, I think she's the most beautiful woman in the world. Yep, that there's a great movie all right.
Can I add to the chorus of praise for Brief Encounter, and suggest that Lost In Translation also owes a little something to its "if only" wistfulness. A film that's defiantly British, and yet universal. Wonderful.

Celia Johnson isn't entirely forgotten - she was also the headmistress in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. And did you know she was Ian Fleming's sister-in-law?
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