Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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Film review by Jason Day of the romantic epic set during the time of the Irish troubles about a young woman, married to a middle-aged teacher, who has an affair with a British army Officer. Directed by David Lean, the film stars Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles and Christopher Jones.

Director: David Lean. (195 mins). MGM. (15)

Drama

 

Cast & credits

Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan.
Writer: Robert Bolt.
Camera: Freddie Young.
Music: Maurice Jarre.
Sets: Stephen Grimes.

Robert Mitcham, Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard, Christopher Jones, John Mills, Leo McKern, Barry Foster, Marie Keen, Arthur O’Sullivan, Evin Crowley.

Synopsis

Set in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising, young Rosy Ryan (Miles) has idealised her adored former schoolteacher (Mitcham) out of all proportions, so is naturally overjoyed when he proposes to her. But the reality of married life to a bookish sort is different to the physical bliss she had fantasised about and she soon seeks sexual comfort in the arms of a handsome young British officer (Jones) who is stationed near to their village in County Cork, Ireland. Around this time her father, publican Michael (McKern) is acting very suspiciously and talking a lot about Irish independence.

ReviewRyan's Daughter poster

It was once said that “There’s no fat on a Lean film”, in reference to director David’s tight and economical editing of his movies (his two Dicken’s adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are both noted for their quality despite the necessary compression from the much longer books).  Bearing this comment in mind, Ryan’s Daughter must therefore suffer from severe obesity.

Weighing in at an unaccountable huge 3 hours 15 minutes, Lean’s film of screenwriter Bolt’s love letter script to his on-off wife Miles (a version, of sorts, of Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary – 10 months in the writing) took a staggering 12 months of principal photography to shoot.

The arduous filming itself could fill a book detailing all of the trials and tribulations of such a mammoth shoot. Indeed it later did, as noted film historian Kevin Brownlow’s biography of Lean used the making of Ryan’s Daughter as the back-drop to tell this most important of British film director’s life story and work.

Despite the ridiculous expansionism (Lean had his crew on standby for some time waiting for the right weather patterns to capture a ferocious storm scene), Ryan’s Daughter is an incomparably lovely film and much under appreciated, both when it was released (and to this day) it is seen as the film that killed Lean’s career.

On reflection, rather than being the mammoth budgeted folly which killed Lean’s career by failing to recoup it’s budget, this film actually turned a small profit during it’s initial release, albeit much less than his previous blockbusters had.

Lean was flushed with success after an unstoppable train of international, Oscar-winning blockbusters (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago).

But, tied with Fred Zinneman abandoning his sci-fi epic Man’s Fate and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) going belly-up at the box office, too much hope was pinned on Lean’s latest, love-in. With savage critical opinion, Ryan;s Daughter hadn’t a hope in hell of getting the cinema tills ringing on over time. The film’s critical failure knocked Lean’s artistic mojo enough that he did not step behind the camera again until 1985’s A Passage to India.

But let’s look at what this throbbingly lovely film has to offer.

Ryan’s Daughter is sheer, old-style romantic film artistry and no one but Lean could make this sort of movie. The high-level of craftsmanship is palpable; the storm scene mentioned above is vividly, drenchingly realised.

But in amongst the epic scenes are moments of small intimacy that characterise Lean’s genius for such things: Miles’ parasol is blown out of her hand and dances toward the beach, Jones has a relapse of shell-shock timed with Mills banging his foot against a bar stool, Mitcham, panic stricken his wife could be unfaithful, daydreams he sees her and her lover on the sands. One thing he can’t do, incredibly as he was married several times, is direct a sex scene.

However, the Miles/Jones “Climax in the forest” is no splendour in the grass. This is the driest cinematic orgasm possible. It’s strange to think the six-times married Lean was no demon lover in real-life and clueless about how female bodies respond to physical passion.

Lean could however get great mileage from his stars; Mitcham, with a perfectly acceptable Irish accent, is drowsily good as the nebbish, unexciting cuckold.

Mills won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as the perceptive, mute village idiot, the first time an entirely wordless performance had won such an accolade since the silent era.

Miles was Oscar nominated for Best Actress as the selfish and spirited Rosy, a role she is still fondly remembered for.

No such joy for Jones however, whose American accent was dubbed in the final cut.

Lean’s frequent collaborators behind the camera provide the technical sparkle. Jarre with his tingly, fresh as an ocean spray score and Young won the film’s second Oscar for his bright and invigorating photography.

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