Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ryan's Daughter (1970)

Mauled by the critics on its initial release, Ryan's Daughter a small story delivered by David Lean on an 'excessive scale' (to quote Roger Ebert) has matured and been mercifully reevaluated to stand alongside the director's epic greats.

It is perhaps fair to Ebert et al to say that the story is slight but the scale bold, but I don't think the film suffers from that at all. For me it's a thing of beauty and has now been recognised as such. It's a hard heart who cannot appreciate we're witness to exceptional film making here.

I love the performances; I genuinely don't think Trevor Howard bettered his performance here as Father Huw, it's a real bravura turn that manages to tick all the boxes of the whisky priest stereotype yet rises above such one dimensional trappings to be something believable at each and every turn.

Likewise, Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles offer wonderful and captivating turns as the schoolteacher Shaughnessy and his young wife Rosy. Mitchum's character is largely referred to as good man and the audience could not argue with that classification. A sensitive soul with a saintly patience, the actor draws back his usual laconic style to deliver something much more studied and interesting. I really like his performance here. Miles is nothing but perfection as the well meaning but somewhat shallow and naive daughter of the title; a woman who was 'meant for the wide world' and is suffering as a result of her captivity on the small and rural Irish coastline.  And she looks at her most beautiful too.

One man who has seen that wide world and suffered because of it is Major Doryan who becomes 'the other man'. Played by Christopher Jones, who as a Brando/Dean clone was perhaps always more of a poster boy than an actor, he's an enigmatic and almost ethereal presence throughout the film as the shellshocked officer, with a clipped delivery provided by Julian Holloway in the dub when Lean became too frustrated by Jones' flat vocal style. 

A virtually unrecognisable John Mills plays 'the village idiot' Michael; a mute man who probably had a form of cerebral palsy. As was noted in Ricky Gervais' Extras, the awards season love a good mental and/or physical disability performance and sure enough, Mills won an Oscar for his role here. As much as this film has been reappraised down the years, unfortunately Mills' role has been criticised, likened too broad and comedic. Personally, I have no such problems with it and find it very sweet and endearing and with more than a grain of truth to it. Where I think it can have criticism levelled against it is perhaps in Maurice Jarre's over intrusive use of his score to literally carpet Mills' scenes and in the script itself, which has Mills be a handy and coincidental witness to every illicit bit of action that occurs. 

And finally, rounding out the main players, we have Leo McKern as Ryan, the local publican, informer and Rosy's father. A man of bluster, he's a cowardly but deeply understandable presence  and McKern's quicksilver presence invests much into the role.

Lean's visuals are of course superb and the storm scenes are still a thing of sheer wonder - who needs CGI?! I strongly advise sitting as close to the TV as possible during those scenes to get the maximum effect the small screen can give this film. Another visual moment that stays with you is immediately after the intermission when Mitchum spies his young wife with the British officer. It's played out almost as a silent melodrama, with Jarre's score - which totally conjures up the discordant emotion of doing something you know you oughtn't - filling the screen almost as much as the beautiful Oscar winning cinematography from Freddie Young. 

So what if you find yourself wondering just how bad is each character's peripheral vision?!

Two things also need mentioning; I love how the little girl Cathy (or Kathy?) clearly has a thing for Mitchum's Shaughnessy. She's almost a reassuring notion for the viewer; that there'll be another woman in that village who will not settle for the sheep like mentality of those around her. 

And lastly on the subject of the villagers, how much of a grade A bitch is Moureen?!


  1. Excellent review Mark! My only comment/disagreement: I think the beach scene is meant to be Charles imagining Rosy and Doryan together, rather than a literal event, based on finding their footprints etc. (Otherwise, how didn't the children see Rosy and Doryan?) To me, the scene's staging and editing indicates it's not a "real-world" event. But that's just my interpretation.

    1. Yes I think you may have something there...because I'm not altogether sure Rosy and Doryan are in the same clothes for the scenes later that day. Thanks for tidying that up!