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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's a scene where the camera looks at the face of Googie Withers,
playing Joanna Godden, as she sleeps on the shingle at Dungeness. The
lips- a thin, firm upper lip and a full sensuous lower lip- could sum
up Joanna's nature: the division between desire and duty that dominates
the film. The title only really makes sense if we include Joanna's love
for her farm and farming as the dominant one.
In 1905 Joanna takes over her dead father's farm; because her fiancé, who owns the neighbouring farm, patronises her she rejects him and decides to run the farm herself. It's interesting because Joanna is not shown as a conscious feminist or someone who innovates for its own sake- some of her innovations fail, like cross-breeding to produce more twin lambs for market- but there's a later scene showing Joanna riding on a harvester on newly-ploughed and sown land producing fodder for her sheep where her exultation is manifest- a modern Boudicca in triumph. Nor is she depicted as enlightened. She is shocked that her younger, educated sister refuses to wear stays and when she is engaged to an educated man it is plain that there is a clash between the naturalness that attracts him and Joanna's own taste for over-elaborate and artificial Victoriana. In the end, of course, Joanna ends up with the neighbouring farmer.
The plot is episodic and the other characters are not properly developed or depicted- especially Joanna's discontented sister and her educated fiancé, whose death by drowning seems arbitrary too, although it is very effective as another depiction of nature's random cruelty- but it is well-worth watching for Withers' own performance. As well as the story there are fine depictions of the marsh- a brief series of scenes showing time passing with characteristic music by Vaughan Williams is wondefully imagined, and a quiet but obvious pleasure in the landscaper all the way through. In fact, it's a pity that the makers didn't have the courage to slow the film down and show more such scenes. It isn't a rural fantasy and is probably as realistic about farm life as a film then could be- indeed, the last scenes take place with a background of smoke from the holocaust of a foot-and-mouth outbreak.
The main reason I'd gone to the film was RVW's music and I wasn't disappointed. However, one very interesting aspect, especially compared with modern films, was how very restrained the use of music was, deliberately and carefully placed and often not there at all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film was shown to a packed audience at the BFI Southbank yesterday.It was introduced by Joannna McCullum the daughter of the 2 stars of this film.She told us that her parents actually met on the set of this film and that their first scene together was the argument.The film was supposed to take 4 weeks to shoot but because of bad weather on location actually took 10 weeks.She said that many of the locals were utilised as extras and for small parts.Thus the "looker" who is sacked by Joanna Goodden was actually a local looker(shepherd).Because of the bad weather her father spent a lot of the time sitting in a car waiting for the weather to clear playing cards with Chips Rafferty.As to the film itself it is unusual in that it has a feminist thread and at times has a slight documentary feel about it.however it starts to go off the rails when Jean kent comes back from school,looking rather older and wiser than her 18 years.Her subsequent marriage to McCullum and desertion of him and the eventual coupling of the 2 stars seems at times to be rather formulaic and unsuited to the characters and the emotions we had previously witnessed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the only film based on a novel by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956
). During her lifetime she was regarded as one of Britain's leading
novelists, but today she is largely forgotten and most of her books are
out of print. She was a member of the rural social-realist school whose
other members included H. E. Bates (who wrote the script for this
film), Mary Webb and John Moore. Her works show the obvious influence
of Thomas Hardy, one of the founders of that school; there are certain
similarities between the plot of her "The Isle of Thorns" and that of
"Tess of the D'Urbervilles", and Reuben Backfield, the anti-hero of her
"Sussex Gorse", has a lot in common with Henchard in "The Mayor of
I have never read Kaye-Smith's "Joanna Godden", but on the evidence of this film it would seem to have been directly inspired by Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd". The action is set in 1905. Like Bathsheba Everdene, the eponymous heroine inherits a farm and decides to run it herself. Bathsheba starts her career by sacking a corrupt bailiff; Joanna does so by sacking a corrupt shepherd (or "looker", the dialect word used here). Like Bathsheba, Joanna outrages her neighbours by her defiance of convention, which in this case involves ploughing up pastureland for crops and an unsuccessful scheme for cross-breeding sheep. As in Hardy's novel the main focus of interest is the heroine's love-life and the men who seek her hand marriage, hence the title of the film. (Another possible link with "Far from the Madding Crowd" is the fact that one character drowns while bathing in the sea, as Troy is (wrongly) believed to have done).
Joanna's two main suitors are Arthur Alce, a neighbouring farmer, and Martin Trevor, the son of a local landowner. Joanna initially shows little interest in Arthur. Part of the reason is that her late father made no secret of the fact that he wanted the two to marry, and she wants to prove herself her own woman, but there is also the fact that Arthur seems more interested in Joanna's land than in Joanna herself and has little respect for her judgement. The more gentle Martin seems more to her liking. There is also a suggestion that she might also be attracted to her "looker" Collard, but this theme is never fully developed and Collard is summarily dismissed after the failure of the cross-breeding scheme, which was adopted on his advice. Other characters who play important roles are Joanna's younger sister Ellen and Martin's father Harry.
Like Hardy (Wessex, particularly Dorset), Webb (Shropshire) and Moore (the West Midlands, particularly Herefordshire), Kaye-Smith was a regional novelist, and her particular region was her native Sussex and the adjacent parts of Kent and Surrey. "Joanna Godden" is set on Romney Marsh in Kent. In the opening credits we learn that "The world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. The Marsh lies where Kent ends and Sussex begins. A place apart, which man has slowly won, acre by acre, from the sea. A flat land, flat as the sea-bed it once was, and a Marsh only in name, for man has transformed bog and reeds into pasture. An austere land of windswept distances and scattered communities. Lonely now, but lonelier still in 1905".
The film was made by Ealing Studios and produced by Michael Balcon, who also produced the famous Ealing Comedies. The aim seems to have been to make a grand agricultural epic of the English countryside, a 1940s version of what John Schlesinger was to achieve with his version of "Far from the Madding Crowd" from twenty years later. That was doubtless why a writer as distinguished as Bates was engaged to write the script and Britain's greatest living composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, to compose the musical score (a fine one). The credited director was Charles Frend, although apparently some scenes were shot by Robert Hamer when Frend was taken ill, so I am not sure whether credit for the wonderful black-and- white photography of the Marsh scenery should be given to Frend or Hamer. Perhaps both.
And yet, despite all these advantages, "The Loves of Joanna Godden" has never really been my favourite film. Perhaps the main problem is that the two main characters are just too unsympathetic. The oddly named Googie Withers' Joanna does not seem to realise that there is a difference between being independent and determined on the one hand and being high-handed and stubborn on the other. John McCallum's Arthur, although he eventually turns out to play Gabriel Oak to Joanna's Bathsheba, is good-looking but snobbish and supercilious and surprisingly misogynistic for a romantic hero. (He quite openly laughs at the idea of a woman farmer). The ending also seems rushed and muddled; both Ellen and Harry play important parts in this denouement, but both have had so little of any importance to do earlier in the film that we are left without any real understanding of their psychology or why they act as they do. I was left with the feeling that a much better film could have been made from this basic story. As a tale of Victorian or Edwardian rural life, this film does not begin to approach Schlesinger's. 6/10
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