While in the thick of World War I, a young shell-shocked British officer comes to a small Irish town already seething with resentment toward the occupying forees. When local beauty Rosy Ryan, who has only recently married the schoolteacher, falls for this tormented soldier, a storm both figurative and literal will break across the entire village.
This is the film that brought the David Lean myth, that he was the grandest filmmaker in all the world, crashing down around his sizeable ears, as critics lambasted its overwrought, over-directed style, so suddenly out-of-fashion, and Lean took himself off into exile to lick his wounds and not return to the big screen for 13 long years. It was a terrible waste to talent, and Ryan’s Daughter is hardly the great mishap it has been painted, but in Lean’s overreaction lies the foundations of this film’s failings — it is too keenly felt, lacking the subtlety and character of his previous work, with a director overwhelmed by an obsession toward perfection that robs him of his storytelling craft.
Part of the problem lies in its setting. The Irish revolution was never going to be as grand or showy as the Russian or Arabic versions, it was a shadowy affair, fraught with religious prejudice and secret plotting. It just didn’t fit Lean’s huge gestures. Of course, his slow-slow storyline looks the business, full of earthy tones and, as love blossom, isolated moments of stunning sunlit beauty, but Lean’s madness was striking deep into the production as a he took off for South Africa for a perfect beach shot, and his style bulges pointlessly around the edges as if full of fair.
Robert Bolt’s script, as always, has its share of emotional shards and pointed, purposeful characterisation. Sarah Miles, Christopher Jones, Leo McKern and a strident Trevor Howard all deliver the goods, while John Mill picked up an Oscar for his transformation into town simpleton Michael (the innocent eyes viewing the mess man makes of himself). But Robert Mitchum as stoic schoolteacher Charles strained against both the accent and the confines of his character, he also wasn’t getting on with Lean, and it becomes increasingly hard to fathom why the director ever cast him. It does end on a powerful note of tragedy and undoing that does pertain to the way Ireland eventually found itself so divided, but this is more folly and triumph, but, at least, the kind only the greatest of directors can deliver.
Melodramatic but still quite moving in places depending on your mood.