Ryan's Daughter (David Lean, 1970) This is director David Lean's supposed "big flop," although, now, given a few decades of perspective (40 years?), Time can be seen to be quite kind to it, revealing it to be solid as a film, and as film-making, unburdened by the need to survive in the capricious tastes of film-critics during the "youth-culture" cusp of the 1970's. While so many of the films that were sending the filmophiliacs into paroxysms of tortured metaphor have crumbled into the dust of pretentiousness, this one still stands up as a story well told...even if the story might be a little frayed and dog-eared.
One can quibble. Yes, it's elephantine in a way that a small-scale story shouldn't be (it's more than 3 hours, time enough for an epic, or at least a couple more infidelity stories thrown in!) and the huge landscapes that Lean favors tend to dwarf the participants of the tiny Irish town of Kirarry (not to mention there's a LOT of people in the crowd scenes...where do they all LIVE!). But, the only serious charge is that Lean is merely being Lean (as in being himself, as opposed to the inelegantly penny-pinching film-making of its era—he spent a year making it "just-so," due to the ever-changing coastal climate of the location, and another year editing and fine-tuning it). Lean may not have been a versatile director, altering his technique for every film (nor does a leopard change its spots...because it's a gall-durned leopard and doesn't have to) but he certainly achieves the maximum in every shot...and one is never confused or questioning what is going on. For all the big vistas, there's a lot of small nuance going on, that merely represents good story-telling.
Sure, there are things that grate: Maurice Jarre's egregiously "mickey-mousing" score, or maybe a couple of scenes are pushed a little hard—the post-traumatic stress incident that erupts from John Mills' "village idiot" swinging his leg against the wall, the venality of the town's citizenry—but, one can see why Lean did what he did, and the drama benefited, ultimately, from such touches.
It started out as an adaptation of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" by screenwriter Robert Bolt. By this time, Bolt and Lean had a working relationship as tight as Powell and Pressburger ("The Archers") did. Lean told the writer he was not interested, even if it was written for his wife, Sarah Miles. Lean had higher ambitions for his films now. Like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, he wanted the problems of his figures in a landscape to have political overtones, rather than just the caprices of their natures. And with present day tensions in Belfast between British Army forces and the IRA in the headlines, locales were switched, accommodations made, and, one feminist nice concession, the female adulterer didn't have to pay the ultimate price for her crimes of indiscretion. Oh. She pays...(things hadn't advanced that far!), but it's the male (a cute, but out-of-his-depth, Christopher Jones) who sacrifices himself...in the guise of destroying evidence.
Bolt wrote his "Irish Bovary," but called it "Michael's Day," after John Mills' poor unfortunate—unfortunate, maybe, but he's the only character who doesn't judge, the lowest of the social strata, but the highest in moral character, followed by the priest Father Hugh (Trevor Howard), who is judgemental, but doesn't allow that to not seek the judged's salvation. In Kirarry, the first one now will later be last, and those who are triumphant by film's end will suffer a life of misery due to it...just by being themselves.
Lean's Irish crowds can be seen in the cackling crones of John Ford's Irish films, or the scandalously rich elite in George Cukor's films—these film-makers are only too happy to take down the gossips and gadabouts in the eyes of the audience, showing their true colors despite the trappings of civility. In truth, they are more like barnyard animals taking full advantage of pack mentality and pecking order. It's not the only instance of Lean using Nature to tell the story, not with so much scenery and weather filling his frames perfectly. But, their shallow triumphs have no permanence, because their attitudes leave a lasting impression, long after they've left the screen.
The actors, save for the callow Jones, are great: Miles is not afraid to show her Rosy Ryan as a selfish brat, Mills creates a character as pathetic (and sometimes as mawkish) as Chaplin's Little Tramp (and he won an Academy Award for it), Leo McKern, bold and blustery as Rosy's too-eager-to-please Conformist-father, but the best are Robert Mitchum, cast against type as Rosy's cuckolded older husband—a bull in a china shop just aware of breaking his first dish—and Trevor Howard, who even whispers in a roar as the Kirarry parish priest—a great, bold, stamping performance of ingenuity and froth.
But, in the end, it is Lean's film, as personal as he could make it with those wide Earth-framing lenses. The figures may be fighting the crags and spray of the Irish coast, but when Lean chooses to bring them front and center, it is always with the best design sense and a painter's eye. Look at the two frames below: as Rosy runs from her husband's bed to join her wounded soldier of a lover, smoke inexplicably—chimney fire, maybe?—roiling over the hill, darkening the moment; and the next shot, as Mitchum's school-master Charles Shaughnessy, sees with his own eyes and not his suspicions, his betrayal out in the open, trapped behind glass and bars, he retreats, his eyes falling into shadow, displaying the loss he is reluctant to express.
It doesn't get much better than that. And there's over three hours of this meticulousness and beauty. It might be a bit rich. But it's quite the banquet.