Saturday 5 January 2008

Devotion (1946) Curtis Bernhardt

We're back in Yorkshire and back with Sydney Greenstreet for a typically Hollywood romanticised version of the life of the Brontë sisters, three famous English writers who had already provided the material for a number of classic films, not least 1939's Wuthering Heights and 1944's Jane Eyre. Luckily we have some serious talent on hand to provide the characterisations and Hollywood did at least keep all three sisters in the story, without making them six or two or casting someone like John Wayne as Branwell.

Emily is Ida Lupino, herself a major force in being a powerful and influential woman long before that was deemed appropriate; Charlotte is Olivia de Havilland, who had more great films behind her by 1946 than most would ever have on their filmographies; and Anne is Nancy Coleman, who I don't know at all. They're all as emotional and melodramatic as you'd expect for a Hollywood film about three women in 1946, with Emily the strong woman grounded in reality, Charlotte the dreamer and Anne somewhere in between.

As we begin, Charlotte and Anne are preparing to become governesses in order to experience life and to finance their brother Branwell's passage to London to find his place in the world, while Emily and Branwell bicker and fight. Admittedly this is because Arthur Kennedy plays Branwell as a flamboyant, petty and foolish drunk, meaning that Emily has to be mother as much as sister, though misunderstood as both. Montagu Love, in his last of 179 films, plays their father, the Revd Brontë, and Paul Henreid the curate who comes to assist him and eventually marry Charlotte even though Emily is the one in love with him first. Details like this are apparently why some critics have referred to as Distortion instead of Devotion.

There are other names here to resonate: Dame May Whitty and Sydney Greenstreet, chief over them. Dame May only made 32 films, of which this is my eighth and while she shines in each, was massively memorable in at least two: The Lady Vanishes and Mrs Miniver. Here she's Lady Thornton, before whom Branwell manages to disgrace himself. Greenstreet is William Makepeace Thackeray, renowned novelist, and he's just perfect. He looked and sounded like he came out of the era anyway, but fits the part also. With the possible exception of his hair, I could imagine him arriving, acting and leaving in the costume. He also imbues the part with a sense of humour, and has a moment in this film where he merely looks downward and I split my sides laughing.

If Sydney Greenstreet had had a larger part, he might just have stolen the film from Ida Lupino, but there's just not enough of him (did I really say that?) to warrant it. Lupino is stunning as Emily, far outshining her sisters and of course having the depth needed to carry such a deep role, having her heart broken at every step by the blissful blind ignorance of her sister. Olivia de Havilland does a great job too but is hampered by playing someone so shallow. Nancy Coleman is good too but keeps disappearing from the film, so that it's really hard to tell how good she was. In fact both de Havilland and Coleman play second fiddle to Arthur Kennedy and Paul Henreid though, and that doesn't seem right.

Reading up on the film, people talk enthusiastically about the score and the cinematography but I was underwhelmed, the sky behind Emily's dream sequences being the only real standout. Much of the rest looked very set bound and predictable, even the moors looking up at Wuthering Heights.

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