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The film begins with a scene in which Barbara rings Leonora to tell her that something has happened to Chris. At this point, we don't know who Chris is or what has happened, only that he has lost conciousness. The film then flashes back a year, to when the old friends Barbara and Leonora meet again after having lost contact for many years. Time has not strained their relationship it seems, and Barbara invites Leonora to her house a few days later to meet her husband. Her husband Chris, a pompous, austere psychologist, gets off to a bad start with Leonora. The two despise each other until one night when Barbara has to leave town to look after her mother. Because of this, she is unable to go to the play she had arranged to go with Leonora to. Chris reluctantly decides to go in place of Barbara, and the two hit it off and begin a relationship. Written by
Andy Prowse <email@example.com>
By the late 1940s, after total war and subsequent insolvency, the Brits were gasping for glamour. Their movies supplied it in the Herbert Wilcox/Anna Neagle cycle of London comedies, and Gainsborough weighed in with this romantic melo where everyone suffers in splendour.
Main setting is a Park Lane flat/office. White telephones, quilted headboards, furs, fresh flowers and cocktails. Miss Leighton is gowned by Edward Molyneux. The only hint of post-war austerity is that the tea shop where the two loves of Noel Coward's life accidentally meet has run out of biscuits.
The dialogue is peppered with 'marvellous', 'simply dreadful', 'frightful', 'absolutely'. The vowels are Mayfair-posh: 'thet' for that, 'may' for my, 'Peris' as a city for Johnson to run away to. Like the pronunciation, the story's attitudes and values feel too old for escapism: World War Two and a socialist government had left them behind.
Source material is a playlet from the 1930s anthology 'Tonight at 8.30', as 'Brief Encounter' was developed from 'Still Life'. But this one has no comic relief like the Holloway/Carey byplay to throw the lovers' crises into perspective; the playlet is expanded only to pile on the agony. Blame Coward, who wrote the screenplay and the lush symphonic score. He was surrounded by old pals Johnson, Carey and Payn, with Gladys Calthrop as artistic adviser but no Cineguild (Lean, Neame or Havelock-Allan) to control his excesses.
Terence Fisher later made some stylish Hammer horrors, but here, not long out of the cutting room, his staging and camera-work are as dull as in an episode of 'Colonel March of Scotland Yard'. The illicit pair's sojourn in Venice is covered by a few cheesy back-projections. Coward's big final scene prefigures Fisher's future with Dracula and Frankenstein in that he processes about like a zombie or golem. But he is generally adequate, if never more buttoned-up, portraying a heterosexual-- unlike (say) Ian McKellen.
There is a teaser opening with Johnson doing a flashback narration as in 'Brief Encounter'. Coward does not appear until two reels in. It transpires he's Dr Christian Faber: a fashionable, uptight and overworked shrink, 'one of the most famous psychiatrists in the world'. He goes missing after wife Johnson discovers and unnervingly tolerates his fling with Leighton, her school contemporary, a divorced, fickle expat on the loose. (Johnson was 14 years older than Leighton; and though meant to be 34 in the story, she was 42.)
The title alludes to 'The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and astonishment of heart' (Deuteronomy). Physician, heal thyself. As we know from his diaries, Coward did experience bouts of amour fou which he half-regretted for interfering with the work which, he once said, was 'more fun than fun'. When Dr Faber's not mooning over Leighton, cigarette in hand, his brisk way with patients resembles Capt Kinross's buttressing of morale on the lower deck in 'In Which We Serve'.
The tale could be Coward's way of obliquely acknowledging the drawbacks of his clipped, corseted approach to life and emotions, which was beginning to be mocked. He was no longer the child prodigy or even the wartime booster. In the 1950s, as kitchen sinks displaced french windows, the Master would lose touch with the mood of theatre critics (if not audiences) and would increasingly appear as a cabaret performer and featured player in others' films, mass-marketing his persona for rich Americans.
'The Astonished Heart' was his last serious stab at cinematic auteurisme. It was the diminuendo end of an ace decade on and behind the screen. For a blistering portrayal of the same sort of guilt, we must turn to his old 'Brief Encounter' colleague Trevor Howard in 'The Heart of the Matter'.
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