Saturday, July 01, 2006

I watched the DVD of David Lean's RYAN'S DAUGHTER recently, and find myself unable to entirely make up my mind about the film. Even more than the Kurosawa films I've seen recently, RYAN'S DAUGHTER veers backand forth between excellent and, well, how shall I say this -- not excellent.

RYAN'S DAUGHTER is the story of Rose (played beautifully by SarahMiles), a young woman living in a small village on the coast of Ireland during WWI. She falls in love with Charles Shaughnessy, the localschoolmaster (Robert Mitchum), who is considerably older than she is. They are married, and seem to be doing well enough until a new commander of the local British garrison arrives (Christopher Jones). Rose has an affair with the officer.

There's a lot more to the movie than that, of course. There's a major subplot about the IRA, a leader of which arrives in town during a storm to pick up an arms shipment (or something, the reason for this armsshipment happening at all is pretty murky) during a particularly violent storm. Anti-British sentiment is pretty virulent in this little town, and when rumors of Rose's liaison with the officer get around, it can only mean trouble.

The acting is mostly beyond reproach. I was very impressed with both Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum. Leo McKern and Trevor Howard both turn in good work, I thought, as Rose's father and the local priest. Christopher Jones has some very good moments, even if the film does go a little too far out of its way to establish his character's emotional problems (the officer was shell-shocked in the war), and then to keep reminding us of them.

The big performance problem is John Mills' work as Michael, the village idiot. The character is mute and seems to be retarded, and shambles around the town in the way that village idiots in books and movies occasionally do. It's a rather heavy-handed concept, using Michael as an all-purpose symbol of whatever needs to be symbolically embodied a tany given time, usually The Social Outcast and Unrequited Love. The Social Outcast stuff usually involves Michael behaving outrageously while being taunted by a mob of ill-mannered kids. The Unrequited Love stuff involves Michael being all-too obviously in love with Rose, and being rather Chaplinesquely heart-broken at her lack of interest. I thought there was too much of Michael the Sad Clown, accompanied by a dissonant version of the film's main love theme, and I started to dread his appearance. To be fair, though, when it works it really works: the look on his face when he finally gets a bit of recognition from Rose almost made up for everything that had gone before.

Michael and Mills' performance pretty well sum up the big problem with the movie. The unfortunate tendency to underline everything to make sure the audience gets it. This can happen visually, by having John Mills' character wear just a bit too much makeup to make sure we get that he is retarded and Quasimodo-esque or by having Christopher Jones'character appear in shadow to emphasize whatever that is supposed to emphasize, his isolation or something.

But the one thing that really drove me up the wall about the film, the one thing that I really find unforgiveable about the film, is the score. That damn Maurice Jarre score quickly becomes infuriating. There's a love theme that is played incessantly, much like the ubiquitous "Lara's Theme" from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. If the persistent love theme wasn't a big enough problem, there's a lot of other distracting music that plays big and loud for no apparent reason, or where quieter music or no music at all might have been more effective. For one scene of Mitchum searching Rose's bureau for a piece of incriminating evidence, Lean and Jarre throw a big chunk of loud Beethovenian bombast on the soundtrack, and it just plain flat out doesn't work. A lot ofMichael's scenes are accompanied by a dissonant version of the Big Love Theme, played on what sounds like a musical saw and jew's harp. Ick. It all gets to be just too damn much.

But. The score is not reason enough to avoid the film. It is almost acliche by now to praise a David Lean film for the cinematography, but boy is it praiseworthy in this case. I could get a feeling from my TV that it was getting all excited at the gorgeous imagery it was being allowed to show, almost as excited as I was. I mentioned the storm sequence, which apparently took an incredibly long time to capture on film as Lean waited for months for just exactly the right storm to hit the coast. This sequence alone is worth watching the film for: I didn't know waves could do what they do in this film. I've never seen anything quite like it.


Pooji said...

Well, you have to go over-the-top when you portray people with disabilities: that's how you win an Oscar. John never imparted this valuable lesson to his daughter Hayley. Had he, The Parent Trap would have been a very different movie. Not to mention That Darn Cat.

Stephen said...

I have such mixed feelings about RYAN'S DAUGHTER! It was, if I recall, the first David Lean movie I saw. It was also one of the first "grown-up" movies my parents took us to see. I was 11 or 12 at the time & saw it in '72 in a small theatre on an army base in Frankfurt, Germany.

I remember being overwhelmed (at the time) with the movie. I loved the waves, Sarah Miles, Sarah Miles' breast and...the music! What can I say, I was 12!

Flash forward about 25 or so years. I was living in NYC and a local TV channel was showing (boy, those were the days!- never to be seen again) it at midnight.

Now I had since then seen the Lean masterpieces, read all of the negative criticism of the film, and caught the none-too-subtle rip-off plot of MADAME BOVARY. I was a bit wary.

Yet, I stayed awake for all of the 3 hours plus.

I had forgotten that for looooooong stretches of the film- nothing happens! And yes, I stilled loved "Rosie's Theme".....for the first 10 minutes! After the next- I wanted to stick knitting needles in my ears. The waves were still fantastic, and that bowler and red scarf scene still held up as pretty erotic. But I had forgotten, or just never realized how emotionally cold the movie really was.

All that said, I'll most likely watch it again on DVD. Weird, or just masochistic?

By the way, what ever happened to Sarah Miles, or Christopher Jones?