I’ve been excited about watching this film for months now, even before I started this 95-film challenge: it’s one of Ealing’s thirteen colour films (an area of the studio’s production strategy I find endlessly fascinating), it’s photographed by Douglas Slocombe (one of British cinema’s finest cinematographers), it’s Robert Donat’s only Ealing appearance (and his penultimate film), and it’s filmed in the East Riding of Yorkshire, an area that rarely appears in British films. Yet my response on viewing the film was slightly deflated, and I find myself unsure whether that is because I built the film up in advance or if there is some more intrinsic problem with the film.
So, what works? Well, the Eastman Colour cinematography is striking in places, with big blue skies and Adrienne Corri’s auburn hair (and colourful outfits) bursting off screen in various places (there are other, more subtle colour touches here, as well, like the red hymnbook a schoolboy conceals his copy of Alias the Saint in) – but the film lacks the strong colour palette and experimentation with colour composition that can be found in Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) and The Ladykillers (1955) or the thematic use of colour in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). While Corri’s colourful hair and clothing mark her out from the otherwise grey and pastel tones of her family (and thus support the film’s argument that she needs to leave home behind), it does not seem to resonate with the story as significantly here as in earlier Ealing colour films. Donat is solid throughout, and excels in those scenes where his character rediscovers his zest for life, and moves away from the rather humdrum, small, life he had lead up to that point. And the location filming is, again, one of the film’s strengths, selling the small village community of Halton (shot in Lund) and the larger cathedral town of Gilchester (filmed in Beverly).
Yet, despite those elements, the central narrative never feels coherent, suggesting (but never following through on) what the film could be: an exploration of how a man of faith responds to his impending death, and what changes he could make to his life and relationships. The film starts down this track – Donat plays Reverend William Thorne, a small, quiet man in a small parish church, whose life seems set in certain patterns, routines and habits. His wife Vera (Kay Walsh) has accepted this life, but wants more for their talented pianist daughter, Susan (Adrienne Corri). Like Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) before it, there is a parallel subplot about Susan’s application to a London music school – and the costs that will come with it – but that tends to distract from the Donat plot rather than supplement it (and leads to a ludicrous plot development around theft that I will discuss more below).
When Donat discovers he is dying, he takes the news well, his small man persona more interested in how the doctor feels about giving such news, rather than how he should accept it. Yet over the next few scenes Donat shows this small, contained character changing, tearing up a safe sermon and offering a controversial speech instead (causing him to lose a well-paid job as school chaplain), chastising one parishioner when she complains about the local gravedigger smelling of drink (Donat’s response is that having the occasional drink to make you happy isn’t a bad thing, particularly if you bury bodies all day), and accepting responsibility for a dying man’s money (in order to prevent his younger wife getting her hands on it). The film’s strongest moments are when these scenes are at the centre of the narrative, a story of a religious man addressing his life, and his achievements: or, as Thorne says, ‘the important thing is not just to be good, but to be good human beings.’
And the film does pursue this, offering up a critique of newspaper misreporting and desire to drum up salacious content – while Thorne insists ‘No one takes this sort of newspaper seriously’ the headline (‘Vicar tears up speech! Questions afterlife’) is enough to draw larger crowds to his sermons and is, by a roundabout route, also the solution to the financial problems that clutter up the final half of the film. But it is that narrative move towards money issues where the film stumbles: despite Susan winning a scholarship, it is clear the Thorne’s do not have enough money to support her. So, the film casts a complicated web involving Thorne as executor of Mr Sproatley’s farm estate and will. While some of this plot works (the performance of Vida Hope as Mrs Sproatley, the younger wife, and her twin desires - for her husband’s death and a young farmhand - is delightful) the film veers away from Thorne to Vera, and her sudden decision to take £100 from the Sproatley hoard to fund Susan’s future.
While it is always interesting to see Ealing push female roles beyond simple concepts like housewife and talented daughter, it is unclear why the character of Vera would suddenly change her behaviour in this way. From a declaration that she was following Thorne’s sermon, to Thorne’s accusation that she is obsessed with living vicariously through Susan, to the revelation of Thorne’s illness (something he kept hidden for everyone), and his equally sudden acceptance of money from the newspapers (to cover the money Vera stole), the film’s denouement departs from what made the film stand out in its earlier scenes. This, along with other smaller subplots (notably a relationship between Susan and the cathedral’s organist (and music teacher) Martin (Denholm Elliot) that appears to be based on him being stern and telling her off), means the film takes its eye off Donat’s performance of a decent man suddenly unshackled from life’s concerns, and able to act in a freer, honest, fashion.
A flawed film, then, but no less fascinating for it: as noted, Donat gives a strong performance, although his personal illness is written in Thorne’s lined and weary face, and Kay Walsh and Adrienne Corri give strong support (given underwritten roles). The strengths of the film remain its occasional burst of colour composition (the strong blue under the film’s titles, the close-ups of blue and green-tinged stained glass windows as sun streams through them), the location filming, a subtle sense of humour (the schoolboy hiding the Saint book; a reference to a parishioner who couldn’t get into The 39 Steps (1935), Donat’s early Hitchcock appearance), and sly scene-stealing moments from actors like Vida Hope and Denholm Elliot.
Next time, we start 2012 by going back to the war years in Johnny Frenchman (1945)...