Ryan’s Daughter has one helluva storm sequence, good performances in the main and a number of effective moments. But the grand visual treatment and technical expertise only serve to underscore the slight story: a dour drama about dour people in a dour time and place with, by my count, one light moment in a crushing length of 206 minutes.
The title lass finds release from her plodding husband by having a passionate roll-in-the-heather with a mysterious soldier. She’s Irish, he’s British. She lives in a suspicion-ridden, nasty-minded village on a desolate stretch of Irish coast, in the unhappy year of 1916. The officer is nearly catatonic from the Western Front. Spite, betrayal, long meaning-laden silences, cruel mockery—sounds like a real hoot.
David Lean took a year to shoot this, going way over-budget, wearing down star Robert Mitchum’s patience and ending up with the critical lambasting of his career, one so savage (led by the truly hateful Paulene Kael) that he wouldn’t make another movie for 14 years.
What sinks this effort, besides the length (at least 45 minutes too long) and its gallery of unpleasant characters, is Lean’s acceptance of Maurice Jarre’s grotesquely out-of-place score, one that ruins every scene it sledgehammers its notes onto. I guess it was loyalty, after the composer’s brilliance on Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but his themes here are so intrusive, cornball and bombastic, so counter to the place and mood of the story that the effect is not a caress of your heartstrings but more like raking nails over a blackboard inside your ears.
Mitchum, front loaded for box-office purposes, tries, but as written his character is so weak, so tamed, so un-Mitchum that you can’t give much of a fig whether his sex-starved wife makes it with lifeless Christopher Jones or not. Speaking of stiff, the woefully un-ready Jones gave Lean no end of trouble. John Mills took a Supporting Actor Oscar for his physically impressive, but regrettably annoying mute (a clubbed foot too far on the Pathos Equals Significance pedals); Trevor Howard and Leo McKern give it as much Auld Sod blarney as they can, up to the knife-edge without quite tipping into camp. The whiskey tab on this shoot must alone have been enough to keep Ireland’s economy alive.
Sarah Miles (wife of the film’s writer, Robert Bolt) does all she can and then some as the a-quivering Rose, following in the ‘touch-me-and-I’ll-simply-explode’ footsteps of sister Brits Susannah York and Julie Christie, paving the wanton-eyed pathway for Susan George and Jenny Agutter—that’s an awful lot of pent-up moaning for one little island. She’s quite good, fearlessly open, and was justly Oscar-nominated as Best Actress.
The movie nicked a statue for Freddie Young’s beautiful camera magic and Sound was nominated for those thunderous waves in the storm scene. For all the time, hard work and $13,500,000 that went into this, it remains impressive but inert, eye-filling but uninvolving, a ‘minor major’, as it were. Despite the critical skinning, it was monetarily successful, making over $30,000,000 in the US alone, coming in at #8 for 1970.