Sunday 27 September 2020

Movie Review: Ryan's Daughter (1970)

A grand romantic epic, Ryan's Daughter enjoys lavish visual splendour and a surprisingly spry story of an impetuous young woman seeking fulfillment.

The setting is a small rural oceanside town in Ireland during the late stages of the First World War. Father Hugh Collins (Trevor Howard) keeps an eye on everyone's behaviour, including Rose Ryan (Sarah Miles), a spirited young woman of marriageable age. She sets her eyes on widowed schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), and they do get married. Rose quickly realizes she made a mistake: Charles is exceptionally polite and adores her, but is also boring and uninterested in physical intimacy.

Meanwhile Ireland is chafing under British rule. Rose's father Tom Ryan (Leo McKern) runs the local pub and expresses hatred towards the British, but harbours a hidden agenda. A small nearby British garrison welcomes handsome Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) as a new commander. He is a war hero but suffers from a damaged leg and severe shell shock. 

Rose and Doryan fall in love at first sight and embark on a steamy affair. The village idiot Michael (John Mills), who has an incurable crush on Rose, is the first to spot the scandalous liaison. Meanwhile Irish revolutionary Tim O'Leary (Barry Foster) is in the area plotting a gun smuggling operation from the sea, while a massive ocean storm approaches.

Director David Lean returns to the theme of love set against political upheaval, this time exploring unfulfilled expectations and the consequences of illicit lust. Robert Bolt wrote the script drawing inspiration from Madame Bovary, and the jagged Irish setting provides Lean with a bounty of breathtaking landscapes. 

The focus on characters helps offset the mammoth 195 minutes of running time. Lean maintains tight interest in a relatively few characters, and teases out several themes with Roses' arc underpinning the narrative. She is warned by both Father Hughes and Charles Shaughnessy her spirit is too big for a tiny Irish village. She anyway chases after Charles, and her disappointment is immediate, leaving her exceptionally vulnerable to the dashing young Major. With her father and pub owner Tom playing a dangerous game, the sturdy father-daughter bond will confirm her destiny.

Charles Shaughnessy is Rose's counterpart, a man so satisfied with domesticity he marries her flaming spirit then does his best to snuff it out through neglect. Yet when the world closes in on Rose, Charles' attributes come to the fore in a vindication of substance over style. Father Collins is a provocative and in many ways progressive character, using his man-of-religion status to poke his nose into everyone's affairs, but also exhibiting the necessary judgment to account for humanity ahead of strict morality.

Lean's storytelling is both luxurious and languid, Ryan's Daughter pausing frequently to admire wild natural beauty captured by cinematographer Freddie Young. Although the film always moves at the slowest possible pace, moments of drama and tension drawn from the political backdrop and the harsh terrain do provide jolts of momentum, with the mammoth storm battering the Irish coast a particular highlight. An undercurrent of almost unstated humour permeates through the film, most of it conveyed through Maurice Jarre's playful music score.

Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles are adequate in the two central roles, although both yield towards staid and sober. Trevor Howard and John Mills make up the difference in showy displays of Irish character, Mills in particular getting too much screen time as the mute but observant sensitive soul trapped in a malfunctioning body.

Ryan's Daughter is one young woman with a disproportionate impact, her spirit clashing with her culture, both ready to confront and neither easy to tame.

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