Ryan's Daughter (1970)
Director: David Lean
Writer: Robert Bolt
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan
by Jon Cvack
I had finished A Passage to India (1984) right before checking out Ryan’s Daughter; disappointed by the former’s lack of Epicness usually portrayed in Lean’s work. Ryan’s Daughter was Lean’s second to last film, and not knowing anything about the plot, it wasn’t until I received the two discs from Netflix that I realized it combined Lean’s epic lengths with his romantic tales of infidelity.
The film takes place in a coastal town in County Kerry, Ireland; opening up with magnificent vistas of the vibrant green rolling hills atop thick cliffs which stand upon a cerulean ocean. We’re introduced to a woman, Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) who’s walking the expansive beaches, deep in thought, greeted by the “village idiot” Michael (John Mills) who shows her the live lobster he just caught. He rips off its claw and offers it over, hoping to win her affection. Appalled, Rosy rejects the offer and Michael returns to the town, scolded by the youth who make fun of his every step.
Rosy heads over to the local schoolhouse, where teacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) has just returned and is preparing the room for the incoming students. Per Lean’s mastery, without any specific mention, we can feel Rosy’s desire for Charles ooze through the screen; not as a woman in want of a man, but a sexual dissastisfaction that’s bursting for resolve. Made in 1970, long after Mitchum established himself as Hollywood’s Alpha Male, we see him change direction; departing from his typical personality and into a more sensitive individual, who’s unable to satisfy the woman who desires him. Rosy suggests they get married and, as per usual from Lean’s earlier period, they agree within days of knowing each other.
The news gets back to Rosy’s father Tom (Leo McKern), who treats his few loyal patrons to free Guiness as they disparage the British who occupy their town. Tom couldn’t be more thrilled at the news, throwing a massive party, which kicks off and culminates in some weird ritual where the town sees Charles and Rosy off to their bedroom where they’re to make love for the first time. In the most shocking performance I’ve seen from Mitchum, we see as he lasts only seconds, never providing Rosy the satisfaction she desired.
A few months later, their life has regressed to a passionless and banal routine, in which Rosy takes care of the house work while Charles teaches a small school. Rosy remains unfulfilled, until an injured British soldier, Major Randolph Dorya (Christopher Jones), returns from the trenches arrives in town; decorated with a Victoria Cross for valor and exhibiting extreme shell shock; triggered by even the most minor of disturbances which render him writhing on the ground.
While Rosy covers for her dad at the bar, Randolph enters, quickly collapsing on the ground when his disorder is triggered again by the commotion. Without a word, Rosy’s passion is reignited. She races to save Randolph, lifts him up, and unable to control herself, kisses him with all of the desire she’s desired. Tom and his friends return, cutting them off, leaving Rosy to crave his affection. Soon the pair meet up on a horse ride, making love in the middle of the woods, providing Rosy all of the satisfaction she’s been waiting for.
The affair continues and Charles grows suspicious to the point of paranoia; soon confronting Rosy who denies anything has happened. In a fantastic scene, Charles takes his students to the beach, in which he follows a pair of footsteps, leading to a small pool where an empty hole indicates the home of a former sea shell. He follows them further and toward the caves where he’s confident Rosy and Randolph are off making love; which they are and which Michael sees by watching them from the cliff tops; seeing Michael follow the trail and abandon his pursuit, for Randolph and Rosy to then exit the cave. The scene’s power is in abandoning full logic in order to portray the way in which paranoia can unravel the truth. Ultimately, we don’t know if Michael ever gains the hard evidence, or that his mind convinces him without reason.
After finding a seashell in Rosy’s underwear drawer, he confronts her once again, and Rosy finally admits to the infidelity. Charles confronts the town priest, Father Hugh Collins (Trevor Howard); who aside from his fair mindedness and willingness to accept the sins of the flesh, nevertheless disagrees with divorce and its ability to give broken couples a way out (not to mention being Michael’s chief defender). When Michael finds and puts on a military ribbon, goes up to Rosy and salutes her; hoping the decoration will win his affection, the town pieces the information together and forms a lynch mob. They head to the school where they demand Charles release Rosy for indiscretion. Soon she’s attacked, having her hair chopped off and clothes torn apart; all while her father turns a blind eye.
Meanwhile, intercut within the romantic story is that of the early IRA members who are smuggling arms into the small town to organize an uprising. With only a cursory understanding of the politics, during the First World War, Ireland had not yet gained their independence; leading to the rise of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist organization which fought for its cause. In the most epic scene from the film, up there with some of the best of Lean, we watch as the town gathers on the coast during a storm as they retrieve the arms scattered about the cove; where massive waves slam the munitions into the cliff bases. When they load up and attempt to return to town, Randolph and his unit stop them, killing the three responsible while the town is forced to watch; with Randolph shooting one of the men in the back as he runs away, further gaining the town’s ire.
Come the end, Father Collins convinces Charles and Rosy to make up, though Charles demands they leave for Dublin and start a new life; knowing they no longer can live in the town. Rosy ends things with Randolph, though when Randolph and his team recover further munitions on the beach, Randolph detonates a stick of dynamite, killing himself and all his pain.
While it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen Dr. Zhivago (1965) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but what I most recall is the way in which Lean used personal struggle to further reflect on the larger conflicts at hand. In A Passage to India, we saw as Adela Quested suspected rape by Dr Aziz Ahmed (which began as a burgeoning friendship) and how it referred to the larger issue of British colonialism in India. In Ryan’s Daughter, Rosy and Randolph’s relationship seemed to indicate Britain and Ireland’s inability to reconcile. Like Ireland, Rosy hoped to gain her independence, and like Britain, Randolph’s power was diminishing; indicating Britain’s downfall as the world’s superpower.
Watching the Behind the Scene documentary, it was surprising to learn that David Lean was not much of an intellectual; much more concerned with providing immersion into the world rather than complex ideas. When he recruited screenwriter and intellectual Robert Bolt, the two were often in conflict as to how to portray the story; Lean wanting to depend on visuals while Bolt hoped to convey information through the interaction of characters. While the film would go on to win a well deserved Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for John Mills performance, it seemed a prelude to Lean’s deflation with A Passage to India. The film is beautiful and the story is engaging, but at nearly three and half hours long, it provided too little action for the running time. Still it’s well worth checking out; ideally on BluRay if you can find it.
BELOW: Some old school white privilege (though mostly because there's slim pickings on YouTube)
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