Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
David Lean’s career as a filmmaker had been on the high road of success for such a long time that it came as a major surprise when his film Ryan’s Daughter failed to impress either on a critical level or at the box office. In fact no one was more surprised or shocked than Mr. Lean himself. It is said that he was so hurt by the reception that the film received that he took a voluntary exile from filmmaking that lasted 14 years.
Ryan’s Daughter followed a distinguished list of Lean directed movies starting with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – 7 Academy Awards, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – 7 Academy Awards and Dr. Zhivago (1965) – 5 Academy Awards. Then along came Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 so public expectations were high. But after its initial showings those expectations came crashing down. The film was called bloated, a tempest in a teapot, over- inflated, over-studied and boring. I remember when I first experienced the film I sort of knew what everyone was talking about but nevertheless I liked it. In other words I agreed with the dissenters on many of the things they had to say but felt that the brio with which they attacked the film was totally undeserved. It was as though they were determined to gleefully bring Lean back down to earth after all those successes.
The movie is not perfect by any means. It’s biggest problem being that it is a tiny story encased in a frame that is too large, too vast and too ornate for it. It also goes on much too long for those who are impatient with films that don’t move along at a rapid clip. I am not one of them. I like the fact that it takes its time and establishes its sense of place so firmly that if I visited the small village where the drama occurs I could easily find my way around. Then there’s the visual excellence that we have come to expect in any Lean directed film as a matter of course. And Ryan’s Daughter doesn’t disappoint. This is a film that is distinguished by its visual splendor, and truth to tell, is somewhat overwhelmed by it. This doesn’t bother me in fact I like it as an aesthetic that just about every frame looks like a magnificent painting due to Lean’s compositions and the excellent cinematography by Freddie Young who won an Academy award for his work. But there are other things in the film to appreciate as well including Robert Mitchum’s beautifully understated performance that went virtually unnoticed by both the critics and the general audience as well. In fact all the performances down the line are uniformly fine. But Mitchum’s stands out because it was so unexpected. His character Charles Shaughnessy is a quietly heroic man of few words and no action. This was the opposite of the Robert Mitchum that we had all come to know and enjoy in a career that began in the early 1940s. David Lean said that he deliberately cast against type and was very, very pleased with his performance.
The screenplay was by Robert Bolt the well-known author of the play and Academy Award winning film A Man for all Seasons (1966). He also had authored or co-authored the scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. This time his original screenplay was inspired in part by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Or so it is thought. The year is 1918, the place is a small village on the Irish peninsula of Dingle where a young woman Rosy Ryan falls in love with and marries a quiet schoolteacher who is perhaps 20 years her senior. Then seemingly out of nowhere comes a young but emotionally damaged British officer who in an unguarded moment takes Rosy Ryan into his arms and kisses her. An adulterous romance ensues and becomes the gossip in a town where the British are reviled. It all comes to a head at a beach on a stormy night when the British soldiers discover some Irish revolutionaries collecting a shipment of guns. Acting on the belief that Rosy Ryan betrayed them to her British lover the inhabitants of the village decide to exact their revenge on her. But as the story unravels we come to discover that events and people are considerably more complicated than that.
Some of the other fine performances worthy of mention include the role of Rosy Ryan played by Sarah Miles who was married to Robert Bolt at the time. Trevor Howard as the tough but human and humane Father Collins, Leo McKern as Thomas Ryan, pub keeper and Rosy’s troubled father… John Mills as the mute Michael who somehow manages to get into everyone’s business won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Christopher Jones’ performance as the British officer Dorvan (Rosy’s lover) was severely criticized as being too mannered and distant. But again I don’t agree. I think that it is chillingly effective. It presents one of the most disturbingly accurate portrayals of a shell-shocked victim I’ve ever seen on screen.
So as I said before this is not a perfect film but there are many good reasons for seeing it. And I guarantee that some of its images will stick with you for years to come.