Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mrs. Miniver (1942): A Review


The Lady Is A Champ...

Winston Churchill was very open about the importance of Mrs. Miniver.  The war that was engulfing Europe and its various empires, one that would signal the death knell of either the British Empire or the Nazi Germany regime, was being watched with fear in the New World.  By the time America was forced to enter the Second World War at the end of 1941, we were on the whole spared the daily struggles that the British had to endure, in particular the Blitz.  Mrs. Miniver brought the war home to us, and even today some of the images still haunt us with their power, both of the unimaginable horror the civilian population endured as their nation fought for its very life, and also in the courage and resolve of its people to, in the words of the Prime Minister, "to defend our Island, whatever the cost may be...WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER".  

The most important aspect of Mrs. Miniver is that it was a rallying point for both Britons and Americans, for the former as an image of what they were (or saw themselves as), for the latter of what our 'cousins' were made of.  If anything, Americans do admire courage.  While Mrs. Miniver has some flaws, it holds up rather well as a portrait of a determined people doing their best to, as the British would say, 'get on with it' despite all obstacles. 

It's Summer 1939.  Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is a upper-middle-class lady, concerned with her family, her rose garden, and that lovely hat she fell in love with.  Her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect, and together with their children Vin (Richard Ney), the oldest, and two youngsters, Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Claire Sandars), they form a happy home.

Vin comes home, full of radical ideas that make him almost a Red.  He, for example, does not believe in social classes, detesting how the aristocracy rules over the village.  This makes his falling in love with Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), granddaughter of the imperious Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), a bit tricky.  Carol, however, can give as it as she gets from the pompous Vin.  Perhaps because of this, Vin finds Carol fascinating. 

However, things change quickly for all Britain.  War is declared, altering life forever for the Minivers and the Beldons.  Lady Beldon is horrified that the middle and working classes now have a chance to forget their place.  Vin joins the Royal Air Force, and like many young couples in war, he and Carol decide to marry.  While Vin takes to the air, Clem takes to the sea, becoming part of the flotilla that rescued the British from Dunkirk.  Even Mrs. Miniver takes to fighting when a downed German pilot forces his way into her home.  Lady Beldon may not like the union of her daughter with the solidly middle class Minivers, but there ain't nothing she can do about it. 

The war continues, and so do the Minivers.  They have to take shelter underground to escape the bombings.  Despite all this, they keep that stiff upper lip the British do so well.  Vin and Carol, now man and wife, come just in time for the village flower show, where Lady Beldon competes against the rose created by train station master Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers).  In a show of changing times, Lady Beldon admits that Mr. Ballard's rose, which he has named the 'Mrs. Miniver', indeed is deserving of the prize. 

The war, however, does indeed claim one or two victims, one in the family, and we end at another church service, where in our bombed-out church, the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) gives a rousing sermon that shows the British, despite all the terrors of night and all their dead (including one off-screen that will tear at the heart), will not give in or give out under any circumstance.

Mrs. Miniver makes the powerful case that in the Second World War, in particular with regards to Britain, the line between combatants and civilians is rather blurred.   The populace witnessed war firsthand with the bombings and the dead that came from it; those in their homes did not know whether they, like the soldiers in the field, would live past the night.  In this, Mrs. Miniver is both a strong portrayal of the British wartime experience and the courage of its people. 

However, Mrs. Miniver is also a well-made if not too subtle propaganda film.  The adaptation of Jan Struther's novel by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West (which curiously violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: There Should Be A Maximum of Three Screenwriters) somehow got the story to hold together rather than present it as a series of incidents.

We see this at the dramatic closing sermon of the Vicar.  It's a blatant call for resistance against tyranny and the rightness of the Allied cause, with the congregation singing Onward Christian Soldiers and the RAF in V-formation over them adding the coda to Mrs. Miniver's greater purpose: morale-boosting for the British and rallying cry for the Americans. 

William Wyler knows how to direct scenes both large and small to bring an emotional response from audiences.  When the congregation is informed that war is declared, they sing a hymn while the Minivers look on quietly while some begin to cry.  Mr. and Mrs. Miniver give each other a quick glance and take each other's hands.  Not only is it a beautiful, quiet moment, but is beautifully lit that only adds to the beauty of the moment.

However, WylerMiniver home, and as the sounds of the bombs come closer, the shelter being violently rattled, we are not allowed to leave.  WE are just as trapped as they are, and Wyler forces us to live out the terror of the air raids, the performances of Garson and Pidgeon capturing the fears of death coming closer and closer to them (and by extension, to us). 

It's a powerful scene that cannot fail to move people emotionally, a credit to both Wyler as director and the team of Garson and Pidgeon as actors that they can carry all this off without overdoing it.

In fact, Wyler gets great performances out of almost all his cast.  Garson is an elegant figure as the stalwart Mrs. Miniver, but she also allows us moments of lightness (such as in her mad dash to get a hat) and of intense drama (such as when she confronts the death of a loved one).  Pidgeon is equally strong as Clem, a man who appears at ease in almost all surroundings but who also has a quiet strength that helps him carry on and protect his family. 

Teresa Wright is simply beautiful as the innocent and intelligent Carol, bringing a lightness and charm every time she is on screen.  Likewise, Dame May does appear to make Lady Beldon the imperious grand dragon so familiar to anyone who watches portrayals of the aristocracy, but we also see that she is capable of her own strength and goodness.

Travers is a delight as the sweet Mr. Ballard, a simple man who seeks nothing but to create beauty.  About the only weak performance is from Ney.  I have speculated whether the fact that in real life he was schtupping his on-screen mother off-screen had anything to do with it.  However, he does come off as a bit stiff and dry as Vin.

Whether is is symbolism or not that the civilian Kay had to take on the German in her own home and garden (thus showing that everyone was in on the fight) I cannot say, but it is a powerful scene regardless, the German's roughness against Mrs. Miniver's fear mixed with courage.  We hear the German 'perspective' for lack of a better word, how their soldiers did not think of committing wholesale slaughter in their efforts for world domination and subjugation.  By not giving the German any chance to be sympathetic, it makes fighting them all that easier.  Here again, another subtle use of making us identify with the British.    

I have one or two problems with Mrs. Miniver. It is a bit dated and the acting at times is rather weak.  Curiously, Clem's American (or at least Canadian, given he was from Nova Scotia) accent was never explained.  However, despite the years Mrs. Miniver hasn't lost the power to move us on an emotional level.  It's easy to see why people still tear up over the story of this ordinary middle-class British family enduring the horrors of war.   

As always, please visit the Best Picture Oscar reviews

1943 Best Picture: Casablanca


No comments:

Post a Comment

Views are always welcome, but I would ask that no vulgarity be used. Any posts that contain foul language or are bigoted in any way will not be posted.
Thank you.