Dir. David Lean. Starring Sarah Miles, Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard
There’s a scene in Madeleine, made two decades earlier and under a radically different set of censorship instructions, where a sex scene is replaced, essentially, with a torrid reel. Rather than depicting a coital sequence between Ann Todd and Ivan Desny which wouldn’t have passed any censor in Britain, Lean coyly presents an awkward little dance between Madeleine, a sprightly young Glaswegian, and her stilted, cane-wielding beau Emile. It’s intercut with moments from a full-on Scottish party at the bottom of the mountain, where a perspiring lad and his lass in a low-cut dress are dancing wildly and beautifully together. When it comes time for the two of them to get down to business on the hillside, Lean simply moves the focus to the nameless couple who finish the reel and then sprint out of the bar together. In Ryan’s Daughter, Lean does not have the same restrictions on his shot choices, and there are some moments where we get Sarah Miles’ breasts hanging out, and there is a lengthy, somewhat stoic sex scene in a meadow with Rosy (Miles) and her lover, Major Doryan (Christopher Jones). The world has changed a great deal in twenty years, and what a filmmaker can get away with varies hugely, but David Lean is much the same director with many of the same impulses.
What makes these two scenes match one another for me is the way that Lean finds a way to show us the specific sensuality of sex between two partners. For Madeleine and Emile, sex is a sweaty night at a barroom, and in fact feels more like a one-night stand than anything else given the way that the two of them will part with extreme prejudice. But for Rosy and the major, sex is a slow afternoon greeting an unbelievably beautiful little glade, a man in his khaki and a woman in red and black riding habit descending upon green turf dazzlingly dotted with heather. The screen turns purple when Lean focuses his camera on this loamy mattress where the two of them will relieve the instantaneous tension that the two of them have felt since their first meeting. Their love, their connection, is unspoken, and yet it is as beautiful and floral and ephemeral as cool purple on cold green. Later on, when Charles (Mitchum) asks Rosy about the state of her affair, she replies that it’s over. Does he know that? he asks. She replies affirmatively. How? Have you talked to him? No, she says, but he knows. For some couples, sex is a soaked dance floor and for others it is a mute roll in the heather. Trust Lean, the man who made Brief Encounter, to find the difference. That this movie is about the same length as Madeleine and Brief Encounter mashed together is what makes it an odd duck, if an occasionally beautiful one.
As much jawing as I’ve done about Lean’s oeuvre at the expense of Ryan’s Daughter, the film that Lean appears to be responding to and basically improving on is Doctor Zhivago. Like his previous entry, Ryan’s Daughter is the story of mismatched lovers in the midst of the historical turmoil of the early 20th Century, specifically the 1910s. Both are literary adaptations of a sort, though Ryan’s Daughter takes some leaps from Madame Bovary, which is what Robert Bolt was originally writing an adaptation on before it became this picture. Lean finds a recipe for vastness in Russia, no kidding, but he also does such a tremendous job of pointing his camera towards the sea in this one. No one would mistake the craggy Irish coast for the greatness of the Russian steppes, but there are shots where everyone in this movie just looks so tiny, emphasizing the relative smallness of Rosy’s troubles compared to Ireland’s. There’s a story about nation-building in the films’ supporting characters, with good turns from Tom Courtenay as a hot-and-cold Strelnikov and Barry Foster as the romantically doomed revolutionary O’Leary. At the center, of course, there are romantic triangles that one vertex only learned about too late, whether they are Geraldine Chaplin or Bob Mitchum. Sarah Miles has the same kind of squishy-eyed prettiness as Julie Christie, and is giving a stronger performance than Christie has room to give. On the other hand, out of the typical David Lean players, Alec Guinness has been replaced by John Mills. Given that the Guinness stuff in Doctor Zhivago is unforgivably tedious in how little it does for a movie that length, and that John Mills’ Michael is surprisingly essential, score one for Ryan’s Daughter. I typically bristle at performances of people with cognitive deficits by people without them, but Mills joins a very small group of people, led by Sissy Spacek in The Straight Story, who are giving sympathetic and unpretentious performances that in the end I don’t mind so much. Michael does so much for the plot itself, so much so that counting the sheer number of ways he influences Doryan’s life alone beggars belief, but the way that the people of Kirrary interact with him tells you absolutely everything you need to know about them. It prefigures the brutality near the end of the picture to perfection.
On the whole, I think one must rate Ryan’s Daughter more highly than Doctor Zhivago, not least because the love affairs at its center feel more potent. Lean never makes the mistake of explaining love too much, and in this movie he finds a way to promote the ethereal, breathy quality of Rosy’s affection for Doryan, an affection that this PTSD-addled soldier finds it in him to return. Mitchum, by now the older man who would slouch around Los Angeles in Farewell, My Lovely or Japan in The Yakuza, is splendid as the jilted husband who, if he’d had it his way, would never have been jilted at all. Charles is a widower who is comfortable with his music at home and his quiet life by the sea. His greatest excitement professionally is taking children on excursions to find cuttlefish as the tide goes out. Personally, his most wild view is that Beethoven is still worth listening to even though he is a British subject during the Great War who ought to eschew such German influence. The sex scene that Mitchum and Miles have is abrupt and calm all at once. It’s her first time—Rosy has confided in Father Collins (Howard) that she not only expects sex to change her but wants it to—and while it does not seem to be an utter disaster, it’s hardly what a girl pins her hopes on. Like Masha of The Three Sisters, Rosy is too young when she marries her older schoolteacher husband, and while Rosy has no sister to comment on the mistake, Masha has. Irina tells her own suitor, “She was married at eighteen, when she thought him the cleverest of men. But it’s not the same now; he’s the kindest of men, not the cleverest.” Rosy pins her hopes on the widower schoolmaster because he is sophisticated for Kirrary, surely, but that sophistication is greatest in his heart and rather less so in his member. One thinks back to that early conversation where Rosy speaks her love for Charles, and Charles’ first instinct is to try to settle her down, to push it away. We are given ample time to see how much wiser it would have been to stiffen his arm against her bullrush.
If there’s something that Ryan’s Daughter is missing that Doctor Zhivago can boast, it’s the presence of a figure without conscience and with worldliness. Rod Steiger is an absolutely dynamic force as Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago for exactly that reason, a polestar of contrarianism against the ravaged idealism of the other characters. He has none of the poetic love in his heart that Yuri or Lara have, none of the confused nostalgia of Alexander, none of the fierce nihilism of Strelnikov. His strength is his adaptable survivor’s instinct, which places him outside the blizzard of feeling which swirls around a warm eye above Yuri and Lara’s infelicitous bed, and yet for all of his faults there is something likable about his persistence. That character is spread a little thin in Ryan’s Daughter, both of whom are playing some version of Rosy’s father instead of her sugar daddy. Howard’s Father Collins supplies the earthiness, the understanding of what it means when the wind blows a certain way or how stormclouds form above the cliffs. He is also unfailingly moral, no matter how sandpapery his speech or how odd his fingerless gloves are or how grown in his stubble has become. Over and over again he counsels Rosy to make wiser decisions than she’s making; at every step she fails to heed his warning; it falls on her head. At the end of the picture, his advice is for Charles instead of for her. You two mean to leave each other? he asks. Charles confirms Collins’ suspicions, but Collins gives one last warning. Stay together, he tells Charles. Whether or not it’s heeded is a question the closing credits roll over, without giving us the solace of knowing. Rosy’s other father is her literal one, Tom (Leo McKern), the local publican who crows loudly about his hatred of the English occupation but who is secretly giving information to military headquarters. The crime that the town comes to punish Rosy for, of betraying O’Leary and his little band after the town heroically helped them retrieve German guns in a maelstrom, is a crime that Rosy’s father committed. Tom never breathes his complicity. His shame is enormous, but it’s the kind of thing that a publican might be able to handle more efficiently than any other professional, short of a hangman. McKern is good too as this man who is clearly conflicted but more powerfully frightened than he is patriotic, and I love Trevor Howard no matter what he’s doing. The trouble is that these two men, the most practical important figures in this story, fail to pour the acid which stings rather than scalds. In a story where the moral choices are crystal clear, whether they have to do with Rosy’s love or the Troubles, there is no need for a Tiresias or Judas Iscariot to make the blows more painful. A Komarovsky to leer would, by the end, be more welcome.