Sunday 15 March 2015

Movie Review: This Above All (1942)

A World War Two propaganda romance set in England, This Above All is a more heavy-handed companion piece to Mrs. Miniver.

The war is raging, France has surrendered, and England stands alone, subjected to daily German bombing raids. The rich Cathaway family is part of English aristocracy, suffering through the war through the prism of moaning about the inconvenience of it all. But daughter Prudence (Joan Fontaine) is more connected to the common people, and she breaks ranks to enlist with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a lowly recruit rather than using family connections to join as an officer.

Through a friend, Pru meets and starts a romance with the mysterious Clive Briggs (Tyrone Power). He is rugged, handsome, but also appears to be harbouring a deep dark secret. When Pru gets a week's leave, she decides to spend it with Clive at a seaside resort. She discovers he used to be a soldier and was evacuated at Dunkirk. But it is only when army buddy Monty (Thomas Mitchell) shows up that Clive's true predicament is revealed.

Directed by Anatole Litvak and based on a book by Eric Knight, This Above All is designed to elicit sympathy for the British, at a time when the Unites States was still uncertain about joining the war. The film delivers its message effectively but also tilts towards the crude side. This is a talk fest that lays bare the schisms in Britain's class system, but then issues a loud and emotional rallying call that England is a wonderful place and well worth saving, warts and all. Everything from the cliffs of Dover to the rolling countryside hills and the magic of Shakespeare are pressed into service, with the simple message of save the country now, and fix its society later.

The film moves slowly but steadily, and Litvak conjures up several magical moments. Pru unloading on her stuffy family's attitude at dinner time is a cathartic highlight. The first meeting between Pru and Clive occurs fully in the dark as a blacked-out England tries to avoid the German bombers, the faces of the would-be lovers only occasionally visible in the light of matches. And when Pru and Clive settle down for a week at a quaint seaside town, they eventually land at a pub and inn straight out of Dickens, a perfectly executed manipulative trick to drench the romance in old world charm.

Less impressive is the brooding Clive Briggs as played by a stiff Tyrone Power, not even trying to be English. Power sticks to the one note of passive anger with intermittent flare-ups, derailing the romance into a rescue mission for Pru. She appears to stick by her man as a mission of mercy to save his soul and make him better, and because she admits to being tired of being surrounded by nothing but women at WAAF, rather due to any obvious reasons to actually fall in love.

Joan Fontaine emerges as the main reason to watch the film. She does manage to keep all her make-up on despite WAAF regulations, and Fontaine captures the tender heart of the film, the bridge between classes, a woman in touch with her country's urgent needs and willing to make any sacrifice to survive and support the men who need to fight. In addition to Thomas Mitchell as a salt-of-the-earth soldier, the cast of characters includes small roles for Nigel Bruce as the innkeeper, Philip Merivale as Pru's father and Gladys Cooper as the haughty aunt.

This Above All may lack some subtlety, but in desperate times, some calls to action are best delivered bluntly.

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