British Cinema, Romance, Unsung Classics

Unsung Classics 2: The Passionate Friends(1949)

 

Today I’m focusing on this British romantic drama, starring Trevor Howard, Claude Rains and Ann Todd. I find it so hard to choose just one film as my all time favourite, but if I had to choose just one, I really do think this film might well be it. It really makes you feel for the three characters and the difficult situation they find themselves in. 

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Mary and Steven enjoy a fast boat ride. Screenshot by me.

If you think that H.G Wells only wrote science fiction, then you really need to think again. In 1913, his novel about adultery, called The Passionate Friends was published. This film written by Eric Ambler and directed by David Lean is based upon Wells’s novel. I’ve never read the novel, but from the write up I’ve found online I think I’d be better off sticking with the screen adaptation, as the original story doesn’t actually sound like my cup of tea. I may check it out at some point if I ever come across it.

Mary Justin(Ann Todd)is married to Howard Justin(Claude Rains), a much older man who is very wealthy. At a New Year Eve party, Mary runs into her former lover Steven Stratton(Trevor Howard)and discovers that she still has feelings for him. The pair strike up a friendship and keep in touch, but neither one can deny their romantic attraction.

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Howard and Mary enjoy a happy moment together on New Year’s Eve. Screenshot by me.

Howard discovers their affair and he puts an end to it, or at least he thinks he does. Nine years later in a Swiss hotel, Mary and Steven meet again, and once again they discover that they can’t deny their feelings. Mary has to choose which man she will stay with.

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Mary and Steven in Switzerland. Screenshot by me.

Not only is Mary now torn between two different men, but she must also choose between two very different types of love, the physical and the emotional (represented by Steven who is passionate, tender and expressive); there is also Howard who is more reserved, gentle, and very set in his ways. Both men love her very much, but with which man (and which type of love) does she find herself happiest with?

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Howard tells Mary how he feels about her having an affair. Screenshot by me.

I like how this film doesn’t judge the three characters for the choices they make. All three find themselves caught up in a very upsetting and difficult situation. We sympathise with each of the three characters as the film goes on. A situation like this love triangle can and does happen often in life. Such a love triangle is not easy or pleasant for those involved in it. Imagine how hard it must be to choose between two loves, or to leave both and start your life again. This film shows us how wonderful, painful, and most of all how all encompassing love and desire can be. 

 

In many ways I think that this film mirrors David Lean’s earlier classic, the 1945 romantic drama, Brief Encounter. In fact you could almost view this film as a sequel to that film, with Trevor Howard appearing in both films and also playing a doctor in both. The Passionate Friends rather mirrors the plot of the first film by having the dull but loving husband; a woman desperate for love who finds herself torn between one lover and another; both films even contain a scene at a train station where a main character contemplates suicide, and both of these suicide consideration sequences feature a shot of a bright light glowing on the face of the character as they stand contemplating this act.

Ann Todd is superb as the young woman struggling against her own feelings and not really wanting to hurt either of these men, but knowing whichever choice she makes will end up hurting one of them.

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Ann Todd as Mary. Screenshot by me.

Ann Todd was married to David Lean and appeared in several of his films, she is an actress who deserved many more film roles. Ann is a very expressive actress and in this film she doesn’t need words in most scenes as her face tells us all we need to know(particularly during the tube station finale.) Mary goes from being quite a reserved and glacial woman, to being a woman full of life and glowing with joy, and finally to a woman wracked with guilt and pain. 

This film features my all time favourite Claude Rains performance. He is heartbreaking as the man who knows what is going on under his nose, doesn’t like it, but finds he is incapable of giving up the woman he loves so much.

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Claude as Howard. Screenshot by me.

Claude also makes us really feel for Howard Justin and makes him likeable, which makes the situation even more poignant all round. I especially love him in the scene where he confronts Mary and Steven and they realise he knows about them; Claude owns that scene and makes it quite funny.

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Trevor Howard as Steven. Screenshot by me.

Trevor Howard is very good as the outgoing, earnest younger man, who is desperately trying to start again with the woman he loves. I love him in the scene where Steven and Howard have a confrontation at Howard’s home, and in the scenes in Switzerland where Steven and Mary share some happy times.

There is some gorgeous and interesting photography in this and beautiful scenes of the Swiss lakes and mountains. The film also cleverly uses flashbacks to show us Mary and Steven’s earlier relationship and how happy and passionate they were.

My favourite scenes are the following. The New Year’s Eve party.  Howard’s outburst at Mary, which then leads us to the unforgettable finale. The entire sequence in Switzerland. The ending isn’t one you forget in a hurry and it is very moving and suspenseful. This is a film that deserves a great deal more attention. Highly recommended. If you happen to be a fan of this one, please do share your thoughts.

 

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British Cinema, Romance

Brief Encounter (1945)

 

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Alec takes the grit from Laura’s eye. Screenshot by me.

Brief Encounter is an intimate romantic drama focusing on two married people who are torn between following their desires and not wanting to hurt their spouses. It is a film that has long held a special place in my heart.

 I love that these two characters have an inner decency which makes them not fully give in to their feelings, however much they actually want to be able to do so.

Brief Encounter has been imitated many times since: Falling In Love, The 7.39(TV), and even a direct remake starring Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. Although all enjoyable films none of these will ever come close to this original version in my opinion.

Laura(Celia Johnson)and Alec(Trevor Howard)meet at a railway station, and they keep running in to one another in the days that follow. A friendship develops which soon becomes something more. The catch is both are married to someone else, and neither wants to hurt their spouse. Neither can deny their growing feelings though and they will both have to decide whether to begin a relationship or not.

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Alec and Laura enjoy a happy moment. Screenshot by me.

We feel for Laura and Alec so much and because they resist their growing feelings this makes them even more sympathetic because they can’t deny the attraction, but they will not just go straight ahead and act on it either. If they had fell into each others arms and ran off together, then I highly doubt that this film would be getting discussed so much today.

It is the realism and bittersweet quality of the film which has made it a classic in my opinion. If this had been made in Hollywood, I don’t doubt that there would have been a happy and very romantic ending. While that ending would certainly have pleased audiences and fed in to the romantic ideal of a happy ending, it just wouldn’t have been realistic. In real life people don’t begin love affairs so easily and such relationships can also be very painful and messy. I also like how the films depiction of Laura and Alec’s meetings and growing feelings never feels contrived; their meetings and developing bond throughout the film feels real and believable.

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Celia Johnson as Laura. Screenshot by me.

Brief Encounter is directed by David Lean and it is based upon Noel Coward’s stage play, Still Life(which was set entirely in a railway waiting room).

Lean decided to expand the action beyond the train station, and in the process he gives us glimpses of Laura’s home life with her loving and slightly dull husband (Cyril Raymond), and also shows us meetings in town between Alec and Laura.

In many scenes this film could almost be seen as a Silent film.

There are many moments where the camera is close in on Celia’s face and we hear her characters thoughts, fantasies, desires in a narration; while all this is going on Celia has to also express what we hear through her expressions, and she does so expertly.

There is also another prominent couple in this film, Albert (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle(Joyce Carey)the station master and station café manager; they enjoy an open, flirtatious relationship, whilst never seeming to ever become a couple (like Alec and Laura). These scenes also serve as some comic relief in an otherwise serious and emotional story. Margaret Barton is also good as the young café assistant(I believe she is now the only surviving cast member.)

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Alec and Laura discuss their growing feelings. Screenshot by me.

My heart breaks for Alec and Laura every time I watch this. It is obvious that they would be good for one another, and it seems to us that they genuinely do care for each other. I admire their moral strength though in not giving in to their hearts desire, that only makes me like them and pity them more. 

Can you imagine how hard it must be to give up what you want most, and just walk away and carry on as normal? That takes some real strength and determination, not everyone can be so strong in life.

The use of Rachmaninov’s music was an inspired choice I think. Today that music and this film are inseparable in many peoples minds. The music fits the film perfectly.

My favourite scenes are the following. Their cinema visits. The scene in the flat. Laura’s fantasy in the train window. The first(and as it turns out) final scene in the café and the “you know what’s happened, don’t you?” scene.

I love this scene for the story and performances, but I also enjoy watching to see a bygone era. This is the England of steam trains and to our modern view some extremely cheap prices for everything, from food to cinema tickets.

A bittersweet love story that stays with you long after the film has finished. I have no doubt that this film will continue to be effective for audiences for as long as film survives. I think that is a testament to the abilities of Lean, and also to all the cast and crew who worked on this film.

Please share your thoughts on this timeless love story. Never seen it? Get a copy of this and enjoy this deeply moving film. Be sure to see it on Blu-ray to catch it looking at its best.