To see a David Lean movie on the big screen is to see it as it was intended. There was much expectation around Ryan’s Daughter upon its release in 1970. It had been five years since Lean had brought out Doctor Zhivago and the two films prior to that were Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Critics were remarkably snarky upon the release of Ryan’s Daughter and the comments so damaged the director that he refused to direct a major motion picture until his last film (A Passage To India) in 1984. Much of this criticism stemmed from the fact that, in their opinion, such an intimate subject did not need the epic look (or presumably length) that Lean had given it.
History has shown this to be simply wrong. It is a story told the only way David Lean knows how- looking at the larger and the smaller picture with acrobatic skill. There are many long shots where the humans who are about to interact are mere specks on the horizon or a close up of one character is then mixed with the long shots of other characters. It’s pure David Lean and it’s brilliant.
In hindsight, it is difficult to see why there was such negativity. This is a beautiful, sweeping story that looks nothing short of breathtaking (especially in the newly restored print). The landscapes are bright and vivid and the major storm sequence (which Lean had to wait nearly a year to film) is one of the most breathtaking scenes you will likely see (remembering that it was all real with no computer or model trickery).
The story, which began as a treatment of the classic novel Madame Bovary, tells of an Irish girl, Rosy Ryan (played with pinpoint accuracy by Sarah Miles) and the fictional Irish village she inhabits with her father (a brilliant Leo McKern, who had such a lousy time on this shoot, he gave up acting for many years after) and a whole batch of proud locals during World War One. Among them are the angry Father Collins (a fantastic Trevor Howard), the scene stealing village idiot, Michael (John Mills in his Academy Award-winning role) and the widowed school teacher Charles Shaughnessy (a commanding Robert Mitchum who, despite a variable accent, puts in a well-paced and superbly delivered performance).
Initially, Rosy falls for the older Shaughnessy and convinces him to marry her, but she feels restless until the arrival of English war hero Randolph Doryan (a stilted and plodding Christopher Jones: the only failing in the remarkable cast). The two begin a torrid affair which eventually filters through to the village with dramatic results.
Add into the mix some Irish gunrunners and a beautifully evocative score by Maurice Jarre and this is a beautiful experience. The film is a long one (204 minutes) and Palace decided not to include the intermission (despite the intermission card appearing onscreen) so make sure you are well fed before going in.
In Adelaide, we rarely get to see such beautiful old films on the big screen which is an absolute shame. Congrats to the British Film Festival for screening this remarkable, breathtaking piece of cinema.
Reviewed by Rodney Hrvatin
Rating out of 10: 9