Ryan's Daughter — So Misunderstood

The response from critics was
so harsh it allegedly kept David Lean away from the director’s chair
for 14 years. Pauline Kael’s oft-discussed review is so scathing
it makes you wonder if Lean put gum in her hair or something.
And while The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor
Zhivago
were enormous films to follow up on, the response to the 1970s film, Ryan’s Daughter, has nearly become the stuff of legend. But
was the response justified? Or is this a case of critics banding
together and doing their best to sully the reputation of a successful
filmmaker?

A film like Ryan’s Daughter
is certainly unusual, especially when comparing the story to the size
of the film surrounding it. A loose adaptation of Madame Bovary
transplanted to WWI-era Ireland, the small story of love and adultery
doesn’t necessarily merit the epic scope given to it. Like Lean’s
previous epics, the film is gorgeously shot in Super Panavision 70 by
Freddie Young and scored lushly by Maurice Jarre, both frequent collaborators
of Lean’s. But many critics at the time tore into the style
of the film, declaring that it didn’t fit with Robert Bolt’s comparatively
intimate screenplay.

Bolt and Lean turn Emma Bovary
into Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), a spoiled and detached Irish lady who
finds everyday life far too boring. She falls in love with Charles
Shaughnessy, the local schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum, another unusual
choice by Lean). Hoping that their marriage will add some excitement
to her life, Rosy is disappointed when she discovers that is not the
case. Her wishes come true in the form of English Major Randolph
Doryan (Christopher Jones), a man scarred by the trenches who’s come
to take command of the local Army base. As their affair develops,
political unrest in the land grows. The Irish cajole Rosy’s
father (a British informant) into capturing German weapons. When
Ryan tells the government, Doryan is sent to stop them and the mob turns
their sights on him and the woman he’s been lying with.

The possibility that critics
were offended by the portrayal of the Irish in the film is pretty likely.
As the political angle of the film becomes more concrete, the hordes
become less and less of an angry mob and more disloyal beasts, attacking
the closest thing they can in their savage attempt to lash out against
the British. They ridicule the soldiers and deride Rosy as "a
British officer’s whore." When they finally get their hands
on Rosy, the results are devastating. The townspeople in Madame
Bovary
were never this bloodthirsty. In fact, the only relatable
Irish characters in the film are placed on a higher moral ground than
the rest: the conflicted schoolmaster/husband, the local priest and
the village idiot. More on that last one later. Even Rosy
is depicting as something other than the Irish mob — detached from
her village and longing for a different life. This becomes all
the more apparent by the casting of the decidedly un-Irish Sarah Miles
in part.

Still, once one gets past the
stereotypical raging Irish crowds, the film is mesmerizing. The
epic scope, slammed by so many before, offers up the most thrilling
moments of isolation the film has. Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning
camera work is truly something to behold, easily standing up to his
other work with Lean. The image of Shaughnessy standing alone
by a giant rock on the beach, with brief glimpses of Rosy and Doryan’s
lovemaking cut in, is absolutely thrilling. The beautiful Irish
background and the wide beach on Dingle Peninsula gives the film all
the visual splendor one would expect from a Lean epic. And it
is completely justified. The three main characters are molded
into a love triangle, lost in something too vast for them to understand.
And it is only a matter of time before the world comes crashing in on
them. The only epic element of the film is Jarre’s curiously
upbeat score, which is often far too intrusive and big for the film’s
more intimate moments.

The performances are a bit
of a mixed bag. As stated earlier, Mitchum is an unusual choice
for the quiet, conflicted Shaughnessy. While he does his best
to play against type, he never seems quite comfortable in the role.
By contrast, Sarah Miles is astounding. This is hardly surprising,
as the role was written specifically for her by then-husband Robert
Bolt. She plays with Rosy’s more self-centered ways delicately,
so as not to make her unsympathetic. And her final moments, when
the extent of the mob’s anger is finally shown, her face is a quiet
masterpiece of devastation and tragedy. The film is anchored on
her performance, and she is one of the main reasons it should be viewed
as successful. Christopher Jones, whose voice was dubbed in the
process, barely registers a blip on the radar. This is hardly
a bad thing, since he’s mostly required to be looked at and desired
than to talk or hold a great deal of dramatic weight.

And now we come to the village
idiot. Played by Sir John Mills, the character of Michael is probably
the closest thing to a disaster that this film contains. Far too
broad and comical for a film of such seriousness, Mills’s performance
is truly perplexing. It’s true that his role does serve some
purpose in the story, but one wishes Lean and company would have handled
it with more subtlety and finesse. Instead, they’ve got the
Hunchback of Notre Dame running around WWI-era Ireland with Rosy as
his Esmeralda. However, Mills’s performance makes good on Kate
Winslet’s words on Extras: playing a retard really can win you an
Oscar.

Something must have struck
a nerve with critics when Ryan’s Daughter was released, and it wasn’t
a good one. While far from perfect, and definitely the weakest
of Lean’s epic film period, it hardly deserved the critical drubbing
that it got. The film is not another case of style over substance;
to say it is one of Lean’s most thematically complex epics would hardly
be a ridiculous statement. Even if its attitude towards the Irish
is muddled and its inclusion of Mills’s performance is off-putting, Ryan’s Daughter truly is a misunderstood piece. With its epic
starkness and its astonishing performance by Sarah Miles, Lean should
not have felt any regret or remorse about this film. And it definitely
should not have taken 14 years for him to return.