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Sir David and Mrs. Brown

David Lean is a filmmaker with many prehistoric virtues. Clearly a sort of a materialist, Lean vests in rich, elaborative visual details and displays a strong belief in assuring their solidity, be it the perfect sunset or the right look of a corn field in 1910s Russia. Only he has proved able to visualize the dark, web-filled Satis House of Miss Havisham with its full gothic splendor or make the cruel grandeur of the Burmese jungle or Arabic desert imaginable on the western screen.

<i>The hero against the landscape, </i>Lawrence of Arabia <i>(1962).</i>
The hero against the landscape, Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

As a master editor before he became a director, Lean emphasizes unimpeachable craftsmanship and has little to do with improvisation. His filmmaking exists to create the final cut already in his head. His belief in the power of his medium resembles his character’s Colonel Nicholson’s obsession with The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s reliance on certainty and stress on the fabric of life remind me of “Mr. Bennett” in Virginia Woolf’s semi-caricatured portrayal: someone more interested in building houses than instilling life into their residents. But does life live in rich details and solid craftsmanship? Did Lean, with all his accuracy and perfectionism, catch his “Mrs. Brown,” the archetype for all characters, the varying, unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, the changed and changing human nature?

The retrospective for Lean’s centennial (1908-2008) at Film Forum sheds fresh light on my doubt, especially in the newly-discovered melodramas Lean made in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s with the “English Garbo,” Ann Todd. These unjustly forgotten works bridge the career gap between Lean’s Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) and the big-budget location epics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). These films lead us to some enigmatic Mrs. Brown’s, where all our knowledge comes from fragmented silhouettes and eavesdropped conversations. For all of Lean’s accuracy of mise-en-scene, these melodramas present the theme of uncertainty: infidelity, jealousy, suspicion, broken promise, and unresolved suspense.

A comparison of The Passionate Friends (1948), and Lean’s post-war success, Brief Encounter (1945), even though both deal with the relationship between romance and restraint, will show the growing shadow of uncertainty. Brief Encounter starts at the end and returns to the same end, with the all-too-brief love affair sandwiched in the middle and left behind as a harmless fragment in the heroine’s memory. The Passionate Friends, on the contrary, compounds the story and confounds the audience with a multi-layered time frame. The heroine’s memory of the lost-and-found love contains its own memory of earlier romance, while crosscuts between the past and the (relative) present, between fantasies and actual reunions, determine the structure of the film. When the lovers enjoy a reunion among the Alps, the heroine will engage in her usual daydream about the present reunion even as it happens, preferring the dream to the life as she lives it. In contrast to Brief Encounter’s safe return to home and patriarchal order, the story of Passionate Friends evolves around habitual infidelity and obsession with a second chance.

Brief Encounter is told in the heroine’s voice and shot mostly in medium shots. Passionate Friends, on the contrary, displays a plethora of gazes of desire and of suspicion. In the encounters among three protagonists, we see the husband watching his wife watching her lover, and the lover gazing back at each of them. Like Hitchcock’s Notorious, in which Claude Rains touchingly plays the role of cuckolded husband, Passionate Friends focuses on people concealing their feelings and trying to detect the feelings of others. A home with a banker husband no longer provides safe shelter as it does in Brief Encounter. Lean uses deep focus to accentuate the effect of estrangement. Shadows and shades fill the banker’s vast mansion, and often appear before we see the characters. In the heroine’s last visit “home” to face her unforgiving spouse, we see her tiny figure walking through the wide corridor and ascending the swirling stairway from a high angle shot; the security of home is replaced by an agoraphobic fear of empty space. The heroine’s upward movement is paralleled in the next sequence by her lonely descent of an empty escalator in a railway station. When she’s finally rescued by her domineering husband, home has become as cold and dangerous as the station where she seeks her death.

<i>The doomed The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).">
The doomed "beautiful creation", The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The estrangement of the familiar home space is at the center of Lean’s next work, Madeleine (1949). The heroine’s first appearance is accompanied by her immediate fascination with a basement, a place she chooses as her bedroom for assignations with her secret lover. As she looks up out the basement window, the shadow of a passerby on ground level darkens her face. This motif will reappear with the secret lover dropping letters through the window and knocking upon the window bars with his cane to signal his arrival. Her lover Emile becomes a figurative shadow cast over the life of the well-bred Scottish young lady. His arrival is accompanied by wind and storm, and the rain pouring into the basement yard enforces the uncanny strangeness of the locale.

In his usurpation of the power of the father, the lover also defamiliarizes the patriarchal order. Forcing Madeleine to introduce him formally to her family and to their social class, Emile plays the role of Papa to rehearse Madeleine’s lines about their affair. When the attempt fails, he dominates the drawing room—the father’s territory—uninvited, and forces Madeleine to play the piano for him. As all these are reenactments of the heroine’s daily life in her strict, conservative family, Emile’s parody makes the daily routines appear unnatural and sinister. Madeleine does not end with the (at least superficial) triumph of the patriarch but allows the heroine to protect her enigmatic life and her isolation. She tells her lover with ease, “Yesterday I made you a promise I cannot keep.” In the sequences about an unproven murder and an actual death, the close-ups of familiar objects—the wash basin, the teacup, the curtain blown up by wind, the front door and the dark corridor, the rattling lock—enshroud the story with suspense without betraying the ‘truth’ about Madeleine’s guilt or innocence. As noted by Michael Anderegg, Madeleine is “both an ambiguous film and a film about ambiguity.” The film ends with the heroine’s enigmatic gaze—at us.

“It is the distinction between things that should be hidden and things that should be shown,” Hannah Arendt thus distinguishes the private and public realms. From Brief Encounter to Passionate Friends to Madeleine, Lean’s “women’s pictures” witness the gradual breakdown of this distinction in post-war Britain. The press for modesty and propriety, once crucial for upper-middle class life, fail at the face of the subterranean emotions. “I’ll turn off the lights” is Madeleine’s line before her rendezvous with her lover. When the existence of the lover and her love letters are finally revealed, her father exclaims, “We are naked.” In Hobson’s Choice (1953), Lean’s rare comedy and another discovery of this century, the upstairs-downstairs distinction break down; the underground lover takes the place of the old master.

When Lean leaves the English domicile for on-location epics, uncertainty and estrangement continue to haunt his work. Both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia contrast vast emptiness and suffocating confinement. The endless tropic jungle or desert is balanced with the prisoner’s hut, the punishment “oven,” the inside of Arabic tents, or the shot from down within a deep well. Threatening with both agoraphobia and claustrophobia, the heroes cling to the only source of security, western values: civilization and efficiency for Colonel Nicholson, discipline and humanism for Lieutenant Lawrence. But both fail at the “white men’s burden.”

<i>Gothic Splendor of Miss Havisham's Room, </i>Great Expectations <i>(1948).</i>
Gothic Splendor of Miss Havisham's Room, Great Expectations (1948).

Nicholson sets out to display to the Japanese army English soldiers’ courage and resourcefulness, even in captivity. But as he becomes obsessed with his great artifact, he gradually takes over many “uncivilized” Japanese ways he once fought against, asking his officers to take part in manual labor and making the sick and wounded work. In the course of this change, Nicholson no longer appears out of place in the wildness. He becomes an integral part of the cruel, fanatic, and ultimately unknowable jungle. That is also the time when, in another storyline, the film displays the mysterious, exotic, breathtaking beauty of the landscape. The jungle, the river, the bats among the trees, the women bearers, everything under our gaze. During a break, officers and native girls take a bath under the sunshine; one of the girls learns the English word “lovely.” We are led to temporarily forget the essential “madness” and alienation of life under wartime, until the final demolition of Nicholson’s great artifact and, with it, the schizophrenia that is the film.

Lawrence of Arabia does not ask us to identify with its protagonist. T. E. Lawrence is portrayed as larger than life hero, adventuring far and wide in search for his destiny. He can call forth echoes among the mountains when he sings, he can merge with the desert harmoniously when he goes out for meditation at night...While he starts as a prophet of enlightenment and liberal politics to what he regards as ‘the primitive, barbarous’ Arabic people, by the beginning of Part II, Lawrence has transformed into as a blood-thirsty killer. His starts with full confidence that “Nothing is written,” but ends full of doubt about his identity. His white skin makes him not one among the Arabs, but his scourged back makes him no longer a British soldier, or an “ordinary man.” When an army motorcyclist asked him, “Who are you?” it’s significant that Lean himself dubbed this line of dialogue. As Adrian Turner commended, “It is the director puzzling over the nature of his hero, and the film never really answers that question.”

It is the key conundrum that Lean never solved. When he returned to the cinema to adapt E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, his need for certainty was such that he took on the roles of screenwriter, director, as well as editor. He cast Alec Guinness as the Indian seer Professor Godbole. Ambiguities in the plot are consciously ascertained. While the novel leaves the possibility open that Miss Quested may have been attacked by an Indian tour guide, Lean indicates—with classic patriachy—that the fancied rape is most likely the product of sexual fantasy of this repressed young English lady. Lean added a sequence of his own devising, in which Miss Quested visits a ruined temple littered with erotic statuary and encounters the “frankness” of the East. Here once again the private takes over the responsibility of the public, and the disrupted boundary betrays the anxiety of the Empire.


Lu Chen

LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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