Tuesday 10 November 2020

Movie Review: 21 Days (1940)

A drama about guilt and luck with bits of romance and courtroom intrigue thrown in, 21 Days (also known as 21 Days Together) never finds a consistent tone and quickly fades.

In London, respected solicitor Keith Durrant (Leslie Banks) is about to be appointed a high court judge. His penniless brother Larry (Laurence Olivier) returns from an overseas trip and reconnects with his lover Wanda (Vivien Leigh). To their surprise her long-estranged foreign husband Henry appears and demands money. A scuffle ensues between the two men and Henry is killed.

Larry dumps the body under an archway but confesses all to Keith, who tries to help his brother cover up the incident not to harm his own career prospects. Based on circumstantial evidence the police arrest homeless drifter and former priest John Evan for Henry's murder. Despite Keith urging them to leave the country, Larry and Wanda stay in England and enjoy three weeks together as they await the trial's outcome, Larry struggling with his conscience and debating whether or not to confess.

Filmed in 1937 and shelved for being sub-par, 21 Days was released in 1940 after Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier became international stars in Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights respectively. 21 Days should have stayed on the shelf. This is a botched and almost amateurish drama resembling early talkie efforts, director Basil Dean unable to steer in any one coherent direction. 

None of the plot elements survive even the most cursory scrutiny. The story foundations are sketchy, as the trigger incident is a case of self-defence by Larry, and yet no one bothers to ever mention that factoid. What follows is a downward and wayward spiral of Larry and Wanda either being apart or being together, either planning to leave the country or planning to stay, and Larry either planning to confess or not, but only depending on whether the innocent accused man is convicted or not.

And even at just the 72 minutes, the film runs out of ideas. Amidst plenty of supposedly profound but repetitive and ultimately dumbfounding talk about 21 days, three months, three years or thirty years representing a lifetime together, the final third culminates in a gharrish run-the-clock-down journey to the fairgrounds, somehow Larry and Wanda concluding that cheap carnival games are the best way to evolve their romance.

Here Leigh is confined to a stock good-hearted woman caught in bad events, while the film's one shining light is a solid Olivier performance capturing a conflicted perpetual loser. Or maybe he was just grumpy trapped in an unmitigable production.

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