Saturday 13 April 2019

Movie Review: The Constant Nymph (1943)

A love triangle featuring a subdued underaged romance, The Constant Nymph offers plodding treatment of a controversial subject.

In Belgium, classical music composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) learns that his most recent composition was performed in London and flopped. In need of fresh inspiration, he relocates to the rural Swiss mountain farm of his friend and music aficionado Albert Sanger (Montagu Love). Albert is in ailing health, but his four spirited teenaged daughters are excited to welcome Lewis. In particular, Tessa (Joan Fontaine) harbors a deep crush, and hopes that one day Lewis will notice her, although she suffers from a weak heart and fainting spells.

But Lewis meets Tessa's sophisticated older cousin Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith) and they quickly get married, crushing Tessa's hopes. The extended family relocates to the London home of Florence's wealthy father Charles (Charles Coburn). Tessa and her sister Paula (Joyce Reynolds) are hustled off to a boarding school, while Lewis starts resenting Florence's conceited lifestyle and friends. When Tessa moves back into the Creighton house, the smoldering passion between her and Lewis becomes undeniable, igniting Florence's fury.

An adaptation of a novel and play by Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph was out of general circulation for close to 70 years after initial release. Turner Classic Movies reached agreement with Kennedy's estate and the restored film re-emerged for broadcast in 2011. This 1943 version was already Hollywood's third take on the book, after adaptations in 1928 and 1933.

With the Lolita-like difficult subject matter of a fourteen year-old girl-woman dreamily lusting after a much older man who eventually awakens to her love and reciprocates (here in words only), director Edmund Goulding deserves credit for steering a steady path away from sordid implications. An overall sense of blandness helps, and Boyer rather flatly portrays Lewis as mostly oblivious to Tessa's passion until late, generally treating her as a younger ardent sister.

Fontaine, at 26 years old, does her best with unconstrained physical mannerisms to portray a barefoot farm-raised young teenager, but she can only do so much. On the screen Tessa is never anything other than an accomplished actress pretending to be a girl.

A stage director before moving to films, Goulding settles for lumbering theatricality and uninspired camerawork. Many of the scenes slowly sink due to length and listless talkiness. Somewhat saving the day is Alexis Smith in fine form as Florence Creighton. Finally here is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, but who also pays the price for the hurriedness with which she snags Lewis. Florence emerges as the most emotionally involved woman, and her struggle to control her rage and not lose her man gives The Constant Nymph some verve.

The cast also includes Brenda Marshall as Tessa's oldest sister Toni, and a rather wasted Peter Lorre as Toni's shifty suitor then husband Fritz.

Kennedy infuses the relationship between Tessa and Lewis with an inspirational subtext to soften the troublesome age difference. Wise well beyond her years and inspired by her father, Tessa deduces Lewis will only unleash his musical creativity when he finds true love and experiences heartache. The Constant Nymph follows a predictable narrative path to misery as a gateway to inspiration. Pity the film itself is more stilted than imaginative.

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