Saturday 27 June 2009

The Passionate Friends (1949)

Director: David Lean
Stars: Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard

When Prof Steven Stratton of the Imperial College of Science in London arrives at the Hotel Splendide in Switzerland very late one evening after missing his connection, he isn't thinking about the woman in the adjoining room, who's lying in bed reading. In fact he doesn't even know she's there. She's doesn't know he's there either but she's thinking about him nonetheless. She's Mary Justin, who had only arrived that day herself, ahead of her husband who is held up in Germany on business. In a lesser film, this wouldn't have been a coincidence but here it's precisely that and it sets up our entire story. You see, Mrs Justin and Prof Stratton were lovers once, long ago, and they haven't ever forgotten each other.

We discover their back stories through a series of nested flashbacks, cleverly woven into each other to build up our perceptions of who they, and Mr Justin, really are and what they mean to each other. This isn't a simple melodrama for a number of reasons: it's acted well (Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard), written well (a screenplay by Eric Ambler based on a novel by H G Wells) and directed well (no less a name than David Lean). So often we get two of those three components but so rarely all three at the same time. The additional reason is that there really aren't any good guys or bad guys at all, making this a black and white film in which nothing is either black or white.

It would seem that Mary and Steven had loved each other for years, presumably long before she ever married Howard Justin, a rich and powerful banker. They have a deep and abiding love, the sort of love where they finish each other's thoughts and words and fall asleep thinking of each other. They gleam when they're around each other and have that sixth sense lovers have that lets them know when they're nearby, even if they're back to back with a hundred feet between them. However when marriage inevitably came up, Mary didn't accept Steven's proposal because of the depth of belonging that comes with such a marriage based entirely on love. She wanted to belong to herself.

Later, when the Justins are married, they meet again and embark on a passionate affair that Steven thinks will bring them together. It almost does too, but it ends up otherwise because the Justins aren't a fraud. Mary didn't just marry Howard because he was rich and could provide for her every need, though that was certainly a powerful factor. As Howard puts it to Steven, their relationship is built on a deep affection, not the romantic sort of love that he sees as dangerous, but a solid and dependable bond between two people who care about each other. It's certainly not deliberate but it does help that Mary's accent is such that 'Howard' often sounds like 'Heart'.

Before meeting by chance at the Hotel Splendide and spending an innocent if ill advised day together, it had been nine years since they'd even seen each other. It's in this flashback that we first meet Claude Rains, who tellingly opens his dialogue with the words, 'I thought I'd lost you.' He's an analytical soul, watching the revellers as they sing Auld Lang Syne and dance their way into 1939. Mary and Howard come down to dance too and he's dressed up in his cape and bow tie, but it's obvious that the Justins are only enjoying, if not merely tolerating, these events, while down in the streets, Prof Stratton and his girlfriend are revelling in them.

And this is all wonderfully subtle stuff. Given the different levels of affections involved in this story, in some ways Howard never had Mary and so could never really lose her, but that's a simpler story for a simpler movie. These characters are not static clumps of emotion; they're characters who grow over time, even if they don't know it themselves. Really the heart of this film, pun very truly intended, is that Mary can't see inside herself to see what she really wanted, not just what she thought she wanted. This story rooks her between the eyes until she has to comes to terms with who she is not who she thought she was and what she thought she'd lost.

This is an adaptation by Eric Ambler of a novel by H G Wells, which names utterly fail to suggest what this film is all about. Wells is fairly known today as a writer of science fiction but he's unfairly known as only a writer of science fiction. While he is so important to science fiction that he even invented and defined many of its standard subgenres, he was a prolific writer in many other genres too, not even all fiction. Ambler is known as a writer of spy novels but like Wells he was important enough defined some of its subgenres. Every story written about a jewel robbery, for instance, owes a lot to him. Only David Lean would appear to fit with this material, this being an effective follow up (a sort of thematic but otherwise unrelated sequel) to his 1945 film Brief Encounter, not coincidentally also starring Trevor Howard.

This isn't a perfect film, but it does come surprisingly close. I found I could look past the fact that the principal characters don't seem to age particularly even in the nine years between meetings, let alone the unspecified but large amount of additional years before that. Normally that sort of thing drives me nuts, but this story is so internal rather than external, the beautiful Swiss countryside notwithstanding, that it doesn't really matter. I can always look past the fact that Claude Rains seems to say 'Oh yes, of course.' in every film he's in, because he says it so damn well. And the fact that this is all I can come up with on the negative side speaks volumes.

In comparison there's so much on the positive side: a real romantic story that doesn't pander to any stock conventions. The end is a beginning, but it doesn't have to say so by slapping 'The Beginning' on the screen. There's an obvious but still strong use of camera angles to highlight when someone's thinking is askew because their emotions are reacting; we see it literally because the camera rotates a little. We also see what people are thinking, not just in the voiceovers of thought, but in little visions that are as extreme in moments of emotion as they should be, even if they're suppressed by more sane thought a microsecond later.

Best of all is what this fim doesn't do. There are so many opportunities here for it to suddenly take the easy road and become something lesser, something simple and conventional, something clichéd, but the filmmakers never choose that route. In fact the one time the story really changes, it's as if Claude Rains is so used to being in Hollywood movies that his character assumes that things have happened that would have happened in a Hollywood movie, and so acts upon his assumptions. Naturally he was wrong.

To highlight just one telling example, the filmmakers make us realise that every cable car to feature in a Hollywood film gets blown up by terrorists, has Nazis waiting for it at the top of the mountain or at least ends up stopped halfway up to dangle precariously, and they do it by simply not doing any of those things. Here the cable car simply takes people from the bottom of a mountain to the top. It does what it does because it's a cable car not a plot device. If only other films could think the same way.

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