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In Renaissance Florence, Tito, a no-good young man pretending to be a scholar, wins the admiration of a blind man who has long looked for someone to finish his scholarly work. He has a beautiful daughter named Romola. Tito flirts with a peasant girl in the streets, and for fun goes through a mock marriage with her -- but she takes it seriously. Romola doesn't really love him, but marries him because her father wishes it. When the Medici are forced out, Tito joins the new government and rises to be chief magistrate. His evil actions earn him the hatred of Romola and of the people, and he is killed by his stepfather. Romola ends up with sculptor Carlo, who has always loved her. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Adaptations of novels made up a large proportion of motion pictures in the 20s, as the medium of cinema began to see itself as continually more prestigious and legitimate. The trouble is they were still figuring things out when it came to translating from one narrative form to another. Romola is taken from a novel by the brilliant 19th century author George Elliot, and her work is typically rich in character detail and interwoven subplot. However this movie version pares the story down to a basic melodrama, with a handful of simple characters flitting from one plot point to the next. As if to compensate, the action is peppered with lengthy title cards, which while they preserve little snatches of the original text, break up the flow of visual storytelling.
But all is not lost. The language of images was well developed in Hollywood. Romola's director is Henry King not a well-remembered figure, although he ought to be. King's shots are consistently stylish, and he has a good handling of space and framing. Take for example when Dorothy Gish is abandoned amid the festivities after her sham wedding. We see a close-up of her, distraught, while the dancing revellers around her make a wild, blurry backdrop far more effective than some expressionistic process shot, because it is realistic as well as evocative of mood. But what was really King's greatest strength at this point was the slow, methodical performing he encouraged from his cast. It is this that really brings out all those layers of character that are missing from the screenplay. Look at the scene in which Lillian Gish gives the ring to her father to examine. The camera is simply held in mid-shot as the old man turns it over in his hands, and so much more comes out of that moment as a result. And the strength of the mise-en-scene is proved as for some key scenes those pesky intertitles disappear altogether such as when Powell proposes to Lillian. It's a pity so few directors these days are bold enough to simply performances play out like that.
And this approach really suits star Lillian Gish. After parting ways with her old mentor D.W. Griffith she briefly formed a production company with King and, while it's rarely acknowledged, she did some of her best work with in their handful of pictures together. In an age when overt mugging and gesture were the norm, Gish is beautifully subtle, the emotions drifting across her face like clouds across the sun. The villainous turn from William Powell is also nicely understated. Powell is probably better remembered for the series of jolly father-figures he played in the sound era, but as a young man his thin lips and piercing eyes marked him down a bad guy. But here he refuses to live up to the stereotype, portraying Tito as a villain by his deeds and not by his mannerisms. There are some nice touches from even the smallest parts in Romola, and it is generally very well cast. The only disappointment is ironically Gish's younger sister Dorothy, who up to this point had mainly been confined to comedy shorts. She seems never to have learnt the subtlety that Lillian mastered, and for someone designated a comedienne she isn't actually very good at being funny either.
There was never really much hope that this production could capture the depth or sensitivity of a George Elliot novel, but it at least has a grace of its own that is very cinematic. If its makers had only cut down further on text and allowed the images and performers even more free reign, they would have moved it further from text-based narrative but they would also have captured just a little more of the spirit of the original. After all, well-written prose should conjure up strong images in the mind of a reader, and visual storytelling is not necessarily contrary to telling stories with words.
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