Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ryan's Daughter: a 2010 critique

David Lean had directed two stylistic epics before he turned his creative powers to a more modest original screenplay, perhaps based upon the novel Madame Bovary. In its' smaller scale human plot, it does present a wonderful and wisely observed story which only a great film director and team could give such gravity to. At the time however, the film failed to create such critical acclaim and public appeal on either side of the Atlantic, despite Robert Mitchum's prescence.

Cinemographic Theme and Contradictions

The opening scenes are very much shot from the perspective of a still photographer. Huge atlantic waves crash against the beautiful south western Irish coast, with the barren islands just of shore giving depth and interest to the otherwise endless sea. There is careful attention to making this place feel far removed from 1970, being almost medieval in the specially created stone village and narrow roads. This place is awe inspiring, yet remote and at the edge of human existance.

This grand scale of the scenery is captured in enigmatic 65mm wide perspective, using fairly wide angled lenses and long depth of field. However, the cinematic theme actually became a criticism of the film because the magnificence of the Irish coastline coupled to the long, slow "takes" demanded by Lean's characteristic screenplay, were interpreted as melodramatic in relation to the claustrophobic human story being played out against such an etherial backdrop.

To me the photography is stunning throughout most of the film and this contrast to the human level of village mentality, very enthralling: from grandoise nature of the coast and turbulent seas, to the petty jealousy and frustrations of living in a small, remote village under foreign power.

Cast and Characters

Sarah Miles gives most probably the very best performance of her career, in her excellent and often subtle and well observed portrayal of the rather spoiled daughter of the local publican, Ryan. Her tragedy is that she is always seeking romance and having married her idol, played by Robert Mitchum, she finds herself drawn to the traumatised British Major, played by a lesser american actor Christopher Jones. Her stunning beauty with reddish auburn hair in the film make for an encapturing "femme fatale" who owns the hearts of the three main male characters in the film: Her husband, the widowed school teacher; the major ; and the village priest who himself displays his affection for her by never condeming her actions beyond what is forgivable.

Miss Miles seems to really engage and breath life into the part as an overly romantic young woman, and it is clear that despite some sublte understatement in many scenes and naturalistic acting, she holds the core of the film as the title should of course demand. ( despite her billing on the final credits being below the main male actors, with Robert Michum leading) Of all the non irish actors, she is maybe the one who masters the SW irish accent the best.o

Mitchum manages to tone his usually heavy prescence down to play the well cultured, benevolent widower and teacher, mastering a role which otherwise could be seen as dreadful mis-casting. That he found it a battle with Lean in delivering his understated performance, is not lost upon us. In the resulting subtleness of his character, he had given a new perspective to his long career as an actor most known for thrillers, war films and westerns.

Picking up on the topic of dialect portrayals again, a quoted weakness of the film, most of the cast struggle and often flounder with the Irish accent. Leo Mckern gives an almost laughable accent in otherwise good portrayal of a central foil in the film, Ryan the publican and father to Rosy, belaying his Australian and west end theatrical roots.

Tim O'Leary is played by "Van der Valk", Barry Foster who's charisma on- and off- screen was sadly lost to us just a few years ago. With a shock of red, curly hair and a passable dialect, he brings a certain intensity as the IRA leader visiting the area to collect weapons. His "dashing hero" portrayal contrasts to the anti-hero we recognise in both the overly modest Shaugnessy and the traumatised Major Doryan.

Robert Mitchum actually does not a bad job with his appointed dialect, and the same can be said of the American actor Christopher jones who plays the British Major newly stationed to the province after losing a leg in WWI. Trevor Howard also adds some gravity to the film with a strong performance as the priest, although his accent fights between Irish, Scot's and even northern English upon occiasion. The priest is the one wise and true man who spans the story as a major weave in the fabric, so we must forgive him his geographically itinerant tongue.

The late Sir John Mills is spared a talking role as the "village idiot": a handicapped man, Michael, who is also a foil to the story. His naieve eyes and wanderings are part of the uncovering of the affair Ryan's daughter conducted with the British Major. Although much criticised later for being an un PC character, for those of us who have worked with mentally handicapped people, Sir John gives a credible interpretation to an important process in the story. Mentally handicapped people often have strong "crushes" on beautiful local women, and see things some would rather turn a blind eye to.

Historical Setting

The film plays out as as a romantic drama with a backdrop of the summer post 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. At the time of release in 1970, this would have been little palatable in the UK, with the "troubles" coming to a head in Ulster once again as a result of the activities of the Provisional IRA, and the use of British Troops to prevent a civil war between the incumbant "loyalist" and republican followers. ( In 1968, gunmen of the loyalist UVF took positiion on the coal yard at the Shankhill Road to snipe at will upon the largely republican Falls Road and west catholic areas in reprisal to IRA attacks, and this was one of many aggressive actions on both sides of the community which were suppressed by the English and Scottish regiments posted to Ulster)

The republic has enjoyed peace and national rule since the 1920s, and latterly with a by-in-large successful peace process in Ulster, the film can I hope now be seen in a historical context as a cinemographic epic. Perhaps the screenplay had been committed to before the "troubles" arose in Ulster because otherwise it would be obviously difficult for audiences in the UK. The film did take a turbulent, drawn out route in casting, perhaps explaining this, with Marlon Brando being asked to play a leading role. Lean and the producers had the US market clearly in their sights in casting a major US actor, at the risk of alienating audiences in both the UK and Republic of Ireland.


The screenplay involves much about betrayal and with the Ryan fanmily being flawed in both the father's and daughter's weaknesses.

At the centre of the story is Rosy Ryan, the daughter of the title, and her romanticising of love. Upon fulfilling her dream of marrying the obvious intellectual father-figure Shaugnessy the teacher, she loses her passion for him. She is a woman possessed with falling in love and not the reality of being in love.

Her affections soon fall upon a new romantic opportunity, the Major, as a hero-man-child who is in need of rescue from his tormented war experiences and injuries. Thereafter the film plays out the impossibilities presented by this affair in remaining secret and then being made public in an Irish Catholic and staunchly anti british village.

¨That McKern's character, Ryan, betrays the IRA has little credibility, apart from perhaps cowardice infront of the ruling law of English administration and his wish to perhaps redeem himself infront of the local constable. This does lead to an escallation to almost Greek tragedic proportions for the drama. His cowardice arises again later when he fails to incriminate himself for this betrayal and instead allows the mob to take their anger out on his daughter as the alleged traitor. It is a worthy twist in the story, if not fully believable in his motivations to betray both his countrymen and his own daughter.

One element which is still refreshing today is the portrayal of the sex scenes between repesctivley Mitchum, Jones and miss Miles' character, which have a sense of realism from the woman's perspective (I believe, writing as a man! ). Together with tender use of surroundings, the two scenes are made both personal and beautiful. Rosy Ryan both enjoys the fruit of her passions, but also is dissapointed in the consumation of her love in the simple physical act of sex. The simplicity and honesty of these scenes would reach a tender nerve in modern cinema audiences if the film was re-released and would be refreshing in the midst of holywood stereotypical "orgasmic" sex scenes we have had to endure since the 1980s.

Throughout its' long three hours, the film is kept lucent and coherent by Sarah Miles. Without her tenderness and attention to vulnerability in presenting a beautiful, gentle yet flawed character, even the originally cast Marlon Brando could not have carried the film so well to it's tortured conclusion.

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Cinematography and Atmosphere

Back to the overall feel of the film and a technical appraisal. The rapid changing weather is captured both with subtle exposure and often long depth of field, suggesting use of a split camera objetive to allow for both close and very distant scenes to be in focus.

The coastal scenes are the signature of the film with the moist Atlantic air giving a softness to the overall depth of field. Indoor scenes are shot with attention to capturing a realistic lighting, something Lean must have demanded of his camera men in all conditions.

The one scene which has been iconographic for the film, is the imaginary beach promenade infront of Robert Mithcum's eyes as he sees his wife and the Major in their finery on a romantic arm in arm tour to along the beautiful beach. The dreamy over-exposure and vivid colours are perfect for the scene.

The capturing of the atlantic storm in poor light is of particular technical noteworthyness and in terms of what must have been pure perciverance of the crew and cast.

One weak point in final packaging of the film is the brass and piano score which is very dated now and probably even a little inappropriate in 1970.

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Today this film makes a very watchable, if long excursion into David Lean's career and in some ways it has survived the passage of time and film reels better than the overly romaticised screenplays and acting of Mssr.s O'Toole and Shariff in "Dr.Shivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia".

"Ryan's Daughter" is an atmospheric and enchanting film with both a plot and acting which feel contempory, while having also a matchless, classic and etherial cinematographic splendour created by Lean's eye.

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