Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

          The only film that venerable director David Lean made in the ’70s, Ryan’s Daughter disappointed people who were expecting something similar to Lean’s previous successes, the blockbuster epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Although Ryan’s Daughter has echoes of both earlier films, Ryan’s Daughter neither coheres as organically nor achieves the same cumulative power as Lean’s ’60s smashes. Seen with fresh eyes, however, it’s an impressive but flawed film that deserved a better reception. Set in Ireland during World War I, the picture follows the emotional journey of Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), a small-town girl who gets everything she ever wanted and then decides she wants more, with disastrous consequences.
          In the tiny village of Kirray, Rosy marries the much-older schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), only to discover that marriage isn’t full of the magical romance she expected. Anguished, dissatisfied, and guilty, Rosy becomes even more confused when she meets Major Doryan (Christopher Jones), the new commandant of the British force occupying Kirray. A beautiful creature scarred with war wounds and tortured by PTSD, he’s a kindred spirit to Rosy in that neither of them feels synchronized with the rest of society, so they commence a torrid affair. Their indiscretion leads to trouble when Doryan confronts Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster), a charismatic revolutionary who enlists the aid of Kirray’s entire population for a gun-smuggling operation.
          The original screenplay by frequent Lean collaborator Robert Bolt spins an absorbing yarn, and while it’s tempting to lament that the movie is excessive at its full length of three and a half hours (including entrance, exit, and intermission music), nearly everything onscreen during those three and a half hours is artful and interesting. Lean’s methodical storytelling is wondrous, because he conveys subtle mental shifts through expert juxtapositions of images and sounds; for instance, the myriad nuances contained in the wedding-night scene with Charles and Rosy are excruciating and specific. Additionally, the Oscar-winning cinematography by Freddie Young is indescribably beautiful. Whether he’s shooting a delicately lit interior scene or a spectacular panorama of the wild Irish coast, Young fills the screen with such masterful interplays of light and texture that each shot is like a timeless painting. Even more impressively, Lean manages to make Mitchum, the quintessential macho movie star, believable as a soft-spoken pacifist.
          Having said all that, the picture has significant problems. Inexplicably, John Mills won an Oscar for his vigorous but cartoonish performance as Kirray’s village idiot, and composer Maurice Jarre opts for a distractingly arch style in several of the film’s musical themes. Worse, the characterization of Rosy’s father, Thomas Ryan (Leo McKern), is muddy at best; the second half of the story turns on one of Thomas’ actions, and his motivation is woefully unclear.
          Still, for every shortcoming, the picture has a virtue—while Thomas Ryan is poorly conceived, Kirray’s hard-driving minister, Father Collins (Trevor Howard), is a complex figure who evolves from stern to nurturing. Plus, Ryan’s Daughter has not one but two believable love stories: Rosy’s marriage to Charles is illustrated as effectively as her dalliance with Major Doryan. Ultimately, the fact that Ryan’s Daughter isn’t an unqualified masterpiece shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a compelling drama writ large.

Ryan’s Daughter: GROOVY


tkhero said...

Great review and I agree. It never got judged fairly. My real problem with it is that there is no real 'love story' going on between Rosie and Major Doryan. Outside of a few introductory lines, they literally have no dialogue together. Anywhere. They are horny and 'get to it'. There is no reason set forth for this British soldier and this foolish country girl to 'love' one another and we are given nothing to narrate that. Its a few hot sex sessions we are supposed to believe is 'love'.She then slips out of the tiny house and bed of Charles, and slips in again as if he's not supposed to know she's gone. Um....right. Oh and Trevor Howard deserved the Oscar, not Mills. Good point.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of your points. Bottom line for me is that the movie is interesting while watching it, but doesn't linger in one's memory as "Doctor Zhivago" or Lean's later "A Passage to India" does. As for John Mills' Oscar, it's an embarrassment to Academy history, not am I a fan of Sarah Miles' nomination. If any cast member should have been nominated, it is Robert Mitchum.