Wednesday 29 January 2014

Movie Review: Now, Voyager (1942)

An impossible romance set against the psychological drama of a convoluted mother-daughter relationship, Now, Voyager is an opus of grand emotions, elevated by a perfect Bette Davis performance.

In Boston, the wealthy and widowed Mrs. Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper) rules her household with an icy grip, and torments her youngest daughter Charlotte (Davis) into emotional oblivion. Mrs. Vale treats Charlotte like a lowly servant, dictating every detail of her life and preventing her from blossoming into an adult. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is rescued by psychologist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who admits her into his mental treatment facility. After many weeks of therapy Jaquith instills in Charlotte the self-confidence to become her own person.

On a South American cruise to explore her new-found independence, she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), an unhappily married father of two. Jerry and Charlotte spend many days getting to know each other, and endure a memorable taxi mishap on a remote mountain rode in Brazil. They fall deeply in love, but he has to return to his wife and daughters, while the now empowered Charlotte has to return to Boston and establish new rules for the relationship with her mother.

The well-meaning but bland Elliot Livingston (John Loder) soon emerges as a serious suitor for Charlotte's heart, but it will not be easy for her to forget Jerry, who has family troubles of his own, with his young daughter Tina (Janis Wilson) suffering from extremely low self-esteem.

Now, Voyager does go on, the final 30 minutes of the two hour running time stretching into what starts to feel like a serialized, crisis-of-the-week drama, while the ending gropes for a resolution to the doomed but eternal love. By introducing Tina late in the third act, the Casey Robinson script (adapting the book by Olive Higgins Prouty) is keen to show that Charlotte now has the wisdom and confidence to know how a mother is supposed to love, breaking the generational chain of emotional abuse. But in striving for a bittersweet ending, Dr. Jaquith, earlier established as a man of wisdom, is dumbed down and allowed to make some bewildering decisions, releasing Charlotte to secure part, but not all, of what she yearns for.

While imperfect, the ending cannot diminish the overall quality of the film. Director Irving Rapper assembles an engrossing examination of a woman in transition, Charlotte progressing from bullied daughter to hesitant adult and then confident society hostess, guided by Dr. Jaquith's sage advice and the healing power of love. From the lowly status of a blatantly unloved daughter, Charlotte earns her small victories as her emotional health is gradually reconstructed, and the film thrives on the challenges of the long emotional journey to recovery.

Robinson finds the best moments in Charlotte's return to her mother's house, the daughter having to walk the finest possible line between respecting her frail mother and asserting her own independence. Using Dr. Jaquith's techniques, Charlotte avoids the route of angry confrontation and instead explores the area where assertiveness and civilized refinement intersect.

Davis finds all the junctures of inflection in Charlotte's transformation, delivering a flawless performance where emotion is conveyed by fleeting but poignant expressions that pass across her face. Cooper, as Charlotte's crusty mother, is perfectly despicable. A selfish mother feeding her miserly needs by degrading her daughter's mental health, Cooper drips delicious self-absorption and expert manipulation.

Henreid is capable if slightly bland as Jeremiah, but his overall acting is overshadowed by the lighting-two-cigarettes-in-the-mouth trick, a signature move that Jerry develops (and repeats often) to light his and Charlotte's cigarette simultaneously. Henreid's silky execution of the sexy hand-off is all that needs to be remembered about his performance. Rains is reliably good as the well-meaning Dr. Jaquith.

Now, Voyager crosses the oceans in search of the ingredients that can transform Charlotte into a complete human being. Some ports naturally remain just out of reach, but the expedition is a deeply enriching experience.

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