No, Judge Ryan Keefer isn't about to bore you with home videos of his kids.
"Is there anything you want?"
Films directed by David Lean are generally regarded as excellent period piece dramas full of breathtaking cinematography and surprising performances by some of the most well known actors in movie history. In Ryan's Daughter, Rose (Sarah Miles Blowup) and her schoolteacher husband Charles (Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear) are newlyweds, and Rose isn't happy with her life, and falls in love with a British military officer (played by Christopher Jones, Wild in the Streets), and tries to find happiness in World War I era Ireland. Warner Brothers has resurrected the film to all its prestige and glory, full of lush visuals and abundant extras. How does it stack up to Lean's other more well-known works?
Facts of the Case
Rose yearns for a better life in Kirrary, Ireland. She frequently walks the beaches near the town and finds love with Charles. Unfortunately, the love is fleeting, and seems to be more of a content but unfulfilling life than she would have expected. As with most things in Ireland, everything has to have British involvement, and there is a group of British soldiers that maintains a small base near Kirrary. The new commander of the base, Major Doryan (Jones), is a war veteran still haunted by the memories of combat. He stops in town for a drink, where he meets and instantly connects with Rose. The two share an affair that is forbidden on many different levels within society. Once Charles finds out, he doesn't do anything, hoping that Rose will let the relationship "burn itself out," but he soon finds that that won't happen.
Complicating matters somewhat is Rose's father Thomas (Leo McKern, Ladyhawke). He does a favor for some friends of his who are participants in the Irish resistance. When this favor doesn't occur successfully, the town, who has suspected Rose's affair for some time, believes that Rose has betrayed them, albeit incorrectly, and her and Charles have another problem to deal with.
I'm normally used to the pacing of a Lean film, though I've only watched the hits (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia). But the pace of Ryan's Daughter was a bit of a challenge for me. The first half of the movie does establish Rose's place within the town, but her motivation for falling in love with Major Doryan appears to be a little bit primal, going completely against her feelings and emotions for the first third of the film. I'm a little bit too firmly entrenched in the modern romance, I guess, and when Charles deals with the kind of silent abuse that he does in the film he maybe should have left Rose awhile ago. But to defend Lean and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Robert Bolt, that's probably the point of Charles' character, to see just how good he is.
In terms of the performances in the film, Miles (nominated for an Oscar in this role) was pretty good, but the two things that stand out for me in hindsight are that her husband (Bolt) had essentially written this role for her. She holds her own, but it's clear to me that Emily Watson has perfected the "conflicted housewife in a nondescript North Sea country" role in Breaking the Waves. As Doryan, Jones looks an awful lot like a natural progression of James Dean, but there is very little of him that is appealing or charismatic. Perhaps this is more of an intentional point by Lean, as apparently he did not get along very well with Jones. Mitchum is the surprise of the film, as his Irish accent is convincing and consistent (for an example of a shoddy, irregular Irish accent, witness Jeff Bridges in Blown Away), and it's a different look than what people are used to seeing of him. I haven't even mentioned a couple more of the supporting actors, namely the gritty but principled Father Hugh (Trevor Howard, Mutiny on the Bounty) and the muted village idiot Michael, in an Oscar-winning performance by John Mills (Great Expectations). Lean's direction is good, and the award winning cinematography by Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) makes Ireland look perhaps the best that it's ever been.
This film is probably more of a testament to how great a studio Warner is. They give the same treatments to the standards as they do for the lesser known or forgotten ones. And the film's 2.40:1 widescreen presentation is simply gorgeous. It's not reference quality, but the lush Irish greens look fabulous. It fully justifies my purchasing a widescreen high definition set. What's a little more surprising is the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The ocean scenes (of which there are plenty) sound much better than I expected, and put you right in the middle of the beach.
The other commendable thing for Warner (which is probably why it looks so good) is that they decided to split the film over two discs. The film's overture and intermission are preserved, and the disc change is right where the intermission is. And the supplemental material, pulled together by producer Laurent Bouzereau, is very extensive. The feature comes with a commentary by Miles, some surviving members of Lean's crew, along with members of the Lean and Mitchum families. It's full of biographical and production information on the film, and serves as a good complement to it. The Disc Two supplements start with a making of look at the film with a lot of on set footage and archived interviews with Lean, Bolt and other members of the cast (and can a few more people smoke on set?). Some of the commentary participants also share more of their thoughts as well. Steven Silverman, a Lean biographer, fills in some of the gaps with some interesting information on the production, which confirmed Lean's various conflicts with Jones (to the point where his British accent was dubbed in later) along with a certain mutual iciness between Lean and Mitchum. There was a discussion about some interesting first choices for parts. Alec Guinness as Father Hugh and Peter O'Toole as Michael would have been interesting to see, along with a better look at the production (and amazing cinematography). An on set look at the film with the extended cast and crew interviews follows, and another dated featurette that is much shorter completes the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film could probably have been better served by some selective trimming, but there's nothing here that will diminish Lean's place in history among the greatest directors. If I started to question Lean, the cries of sacrilege would be deafening.
Ryan's Daughter is the brussel sprouts or cabbage for many people's diets. It is clearly an acquired taste. Things pick up quite noticeably in the second half of the film, but the characters' actions and motivations seem to be a bit of a stretch, even for an early 20th century version of the Emerald Isle. Fans of the director will enjoy the stellar look off the film, and there are enough extras to justify a purchase for Lean enthusiasts.
The court finds Bolt guilty for the story, but sentences him to time served. Court is adjourned; everyone should now meet on the beaches of Ireland for a long walk or two.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Sarah Miles, Michael Stevenson, Roy Stevens, Roy Walker, Eddie Fowlie, Tony Lawson, Vic Armstrong, Sandra Lean, Stephen Silverman, Petrine Day Mitchum, Richard Schickel, Hugh Hudson and John Boorman
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