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This appears to be one of Noel Coward's lesser known films, and it is easy to understand why. Taken at face value it's not a bad film, but there's nothing terribly good about it either. Nothing much happens at all throughout the course of the film, it's simply the story of Chris and Leonora's ill-fated affair, and Barbara's reaction to it. The only thing that keeps the film interesting is the fact that we already know it's going to end badly for one reason or another, owing to the first scene. Oddly, there are many perfect opportunities in the story for conflict, and yet none of them are utilised. For example, it would've been much more interesting and believable if Barbara had've fallen out with Leonora, but instead the two remained on good terms throughout the film. The notion of Barbara having been betrayed by her friend was not explored at all - in fact she didn't even seem to feel betrayed by her husband; she even encourages him to go on a holiday with Leonora. Similarly, Chris' two secretaries at his practice, Susan Birch and Tim Verney, who also happen to be close friends of both Chris and Barbara, are never forced to take sides. In fact, Tim shies away from conflict by telling Chris that he's terribly fond of both him and Barbara. Despite the strange lack of conflict, the biggest flaw in the film is the fact that we don't care whether Chris ends up with Leonora or Barbara. The two womens' personalities are indistinguishable anyway so we don't know which of the two is better suited to be with Chris, and besides this, Barbara's permissiveness gives the impression that she hardly cares about the affair anyway. Furthermore, I found Chris and Leonora's relationship somewhat unconvincing. I can overlook the ridiculously short timeframe in which they fall for each other because that is so common in films of this era, but even then the relationship seemed shallow. Coward's character was too austere and cynical to be the object of Leonora's affections. He reminds me of the socially inept genius Sir Earnest Pease from the film "Very Important Person" - I'm sure the two would've gotten along well. Chris' coldness and austerity made his love for Leonora seem insincere. I think Coward should've sat this one out and given his part to a younger man - as it is, I was constantly wondering what this young beauty saw in such a sombre, mostly emotionless, balding middle aged man. Despite all my criticisms, the film still manages to be interesting - just not terribly compelling. The fact that none of the characters are particularly well developed gives them an enigmatic nature, which is somewhat intriguing. The Astonished Heart is certainly worth watching, but it is a flawed piece of cinema.
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'.
Years ago, when I was in high school, I read a book that evaluated the
leading West End acting giants of the first half of the twentieth
century (or more exactly, those who were the big names from 1925 -
1971). They were Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir John Guilgud, Dame Edith
Evans, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Dame Peggy Ashcroft,
and Sir Noel Coward. The appearance of these seven stars guaranteed
large public interest and box office in those years. One could probably
add Sir John Mills, Sir Alec Guinness, and Dame Sybil Thorndyke to this
group. What is curious about them is that they were not equally
successful in movie careers. Evans gave some nice performances (her
role in "Tom Jones" was very funny, as was her classic Lady Bracknell
in "The Importance Of Being Earnest") but outside of England she never
caught on. Same with Sybil Thorndyke, and Peggy Ashcroft only achieved
really good international fame in her late years for her Oscar
performance in "A Passage To India". Of the men, Olivier and Guilgud
won Oscars (technically Olivier got two, one for his career and one for
best actor in "Hamlet"; Guilgud got one for best supporting actor in
"Arthur"). Mills and Guinness would also get Oscars (the former for
best supporting actor for "Ryan's Daughter"; the latter for "The Bridge
On The River Kwai" and for his career). Richardson and Redgrave got
nominated, but never won the award.
And then there was Sir Noel. Of the group he had the best theatrical reputation of all (even more than Olivier, who was a director of the new National Theater in the 1960s). After all Coward wrote plays and operettas, and composed music. He was a successful cabaret singer. He did win a special Oscar (for his wartime film, "In Which They Serve)." As the second most successful 20th Century English dramatist after Shaw he was established. There was just one fly in the ointment. Except for a handful of films in his career that he appeared in, he was a terrible film actor.
If you doubt this think of the movie credits of Olivier, Redgrave (yes Michael Redgrave), Richardson, Guilgud, Guinness, and Mills, and compare them with the paucity of titles for Coward. His two movie roles of note are "Bunny Lake is Missing" (where he plays a pervert), and "Our Man In Havana" where he plays a middle management spy master - and is somewhat cornered by the lies that Alec Guinness has submitted in his reports. You might, if you are willing to give him some brownie points, acknowledge "The Scoundrel", where he is a nasty, egotistical publisher - he is allowed to play a bit with the role, but he has not written the bon mots that are dropped by his publisher (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur did).
There is nobody to share the blame for this movie with. Based on a play by Coward, you would think that it is worthwhile. Ah, but his best plays were comedies like "Hay Fever" and "Blithe Spirit". His most successful dramatic play was "Brief Encounter", which was brilliant when David Lean directed it with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But Lean is not directing this, and Coward is playing the lead part.
The problem with Coward is he tends to the sentimental. Even though he writes very funny, brittle dialog he does not resolve issues in a normal way at all. The conclusion of "Blithe Spirit" is Charles Condimine leaves the house with the spirits of his two warring ex-wives to fight it out while he sees the rest of the world. In the movie this was changed, but the stage production ends with Charles triumphant over two warring ghosts! Hardly realistic that. "Hay Fever" ends with the guests of the four members of a theater family sneaking out of the house to avoid spending another moment with these selfish nuts if they can avoid it. But the nuts learn nothing from this - they will continue forever as before. Somehow another dramatist might have had one of the nuts realize who was actually to blame.
In "The Astonished Heart", Coward plays a psychiatrist who is wrapped up in his work. He does not really notice his wife's old friend when he is introduced to her, but rather continues his researches and writings (he also reveals that the title comes from a passage in the Old Testament referring to "astonishment of heart"). Eventually Coward does develop an interest in the old friend, so they start an affair. The film follows the problems between the three points of the triangle, and the eventual tragedy it leads to.
The actors try, but the audience really cannot get into them or their conflicts, although the gradual cooling of the affair does strike one as a most honest and realistic touch. That is only because the psychiatrist is such a pitifully dull fellow one can't see what the friend really saw in him. The film leaves one pretty cold. Sir Noel would return to his stage and cabaret work, which was far more rewarding than this. I'm glad for his sake he did. Unfortunately he still made occasional film appearances, most of which were eminently forgettable.
Noel Coward was perhaps the wrong person to star in this odd adaptation of
his own story, about an unfaithful husband and the decisions he makes.
It works mainly in flashback, so no surprise for the viewer in seeing where the affair is heading. Celia Johnson plays Coward's wife (a second teaming, following In Which We Serve, eight years earlier); while the lovely Margaret Leighton is his love interest.
The scenes between Coward and Leighton are difficult due to the total lack of chemistry, but the film is not altogether bad: Joyce Carey appears in support, and is very effective; the plot, although outlandish, can be accepted to a point. Coward himself had a low opinion of his work in The Astonished Heart, referring to himself as that splendid old Chinese character actress'.
The Astonished Heart (1950)
Well, Noel Coward is above all a writer, and this is a sharp, well written, and contemporary (for 1950) drama. It is acerbic and witty, and it has a dry style you'd be forgiven for calling British (everyone else does) but it is most of all effective. And the story deals with that most basic of human dramas, falling in love when you shouldn't.
Coward was most of all a playwright, and he defines the sophisticated, dry, somewhat emotionally removed culture that was present in mid-Century London (and most of well off Britain). The particular material was originally a short play from 1935, and it actually still feels a little pre-War, not in any overt sense, but in its flavor, it's lack of feeling of post-war sensibilities in film as much as theater. But this isn't a bad thing--the play is about things outside of any one era. In fact, the much better 1945 movie "Brief Encounter" is also based on a short play from the same period, and deals with adultery, as well. And there is a reference to a pilot being shot down in the war, an adjustment made for the times.
By the way, adultery has always been in issue in classic (1930s-50s) movies when it butted up against the Hays code. In Britain, the "O'Connor" rules were something similar but were eventually more flexible. British movies did face American censors for release in the U.S., and the whole atmosphere of the commercial movie industry was to avoid getting into trouble. So the key result was that characters who did bad things had to meet bad ends.
Coward is a terrific actor in this kind of role. Like many actors of his generation, he plays the same kind of person in all this movies, but plays them (or it) so well that's all that matters. Of course, he's the main character in his own play, which is under his control. The two women around him, both little known to American audiences (the Celia Johnson is a wonder as his wife), are spot on perfect in those kinds of cultured London upper crust roles. All is well except love. They discuss their affairs with a kind of dispassion that makes the psychiatry dialog in the movie steamy by comparison. It's all very admirable and pathetic (by our more expressive standards) at the same time. And good movie material.
Never mind that the music is overly dramatic at times (Coward wrote the music, too!), or that it can be so talky it betrays its theatrical roots (as a play). This is a solid drama, and a serious one, and one many of us can relate to. And if "Blithe Spirit" or "Brief Encounter" are better entries to Coward's writing, this shows him as an actor extremely well.
Yes, dated, yes, stiff, yes, mannered, yes, upper class twaddle, yes, Noel looks 99 years old, yes, wet, yes, blinkered clipped and indoors... BUT what a script! I had never seen this 1950 film which delves well into adultery and gay relationships and (in one jaw-dropper throwaway scene, an incest/son-mother proxy moment where a mother is aghast at her sex drive for a boy 'younger than her son who looks just like......him'...)... While it is easy to sneer and carry on being superior to the 'drama'... THE ASTONISHED HEART is a very well behaved and quite intelligent dissecting of a weak marriage falling into lust by a man who knows what it means, how it is caused and what the result will be... and that therein is the thrill of it: He knows and he still cannot stop falling. Don't ridicule this film, enjoy its melodrama and manners. It is a really intelligent adult film from the post war years of Britain when everyone was sick of... waiting....!
The chance to see Noel Coward perform any one of his works is never to
be passed up. But The Astonished Heart is inflated out of all
proportion from what began as a small one act playlet, part of an octet
that comprised Tonight At 8:30.
Another of the playlets from this group was also similarly inflated by MGM as a vehicle for Norma Shearer and Melvyn Douglas. There just was not enough there to warrant the inflation. Coward does marginally better when he inflates it himself.
The English are so terribly civilized about infidelity. That must be the reason that there was never the equivalent of the state of Nevada, a Reno where spouses can soak the adulterer in court. I'm thinking that this particular Coward work did not play well in America as opposed to others.
Coward after years of what was a humdrum marriage to Celia Johnson falls hard for Margaret Leighton who is both beautiful and treacherous. She's an old friend of Johnson's who drops in and one night when Johnson can't make a social engagement, Coward takes Leighton and he descends down hill from there.
Coward in the story is a psychiatrist, a profession that's supposed to have all the answers for human behavior. But his training hasn't given him any answers. Johnson might just take him back, but he can't bring himself to make a move. It all ends badly.
As we know Coward was gay and this film offers us a rare chance to see Graham Payn who was his partner in life and whose career was mostly on the English stage. Payn plays an office assistant to Coward. But I wonder if some previous relationship went bad for him and Coward being the good story teller that he is was writing about something that happened in his own life.
He also understood the human psyche well and certainly pride can be a double edged weapon in our character. It's pride that keeps Coward from doing the right thing all around.
Coward did a far better job than MGM did in inflating one of his short plays to a full blown drama. But while it's good, it's not up there with Private Lives or Blithe Spirit.
i've just seen the movie and i enjoyed it. one shouldn't expect the shooting and love scenes that are so common in today's movies, the film has a certain classical perfume. although the action lacks violent events and all the characters behave calmly, the tension is present always, especially through music and landscape, a constant feeling that something bad is about to happen. there are some beautiful moments of interior struggle which are not expressed through words but through the glowing eyes or shadows on NC's or Celia Johnson's face. the lines are poetical in the well-known NC style and the music is beautiful. the movie is intense and personal.
I had not seen or heard of this film before watching it on DVD. I found
it compelling and easy to watch. In some ways reminiscent of Brief
Encounter with the story of forbidden love and the sadness that this
can only lead to.
The film is an adaption of a play written by Coward himself and is done so with great British precision. The scenery and the stiffness of the dialogue are reminiscent of the post war period where those wealthy enough enjoyed a comfortable life with cocktails, dancing and for some infidelity the order of the day.
Despite being happily married for a number of year Coward's character, Dr Christian Faber is influenced by a case from his psychiatrists practice. A story of forbidden love!! This can only lead to heartache, pain and much more as the adulterous affair he embarks on can only lead to tragedy!!
In motion pictures, we have many different artistic disciplines coming
together to make one finished product. In some films, there are
elements that have great artistic merit, while other elements fall
Recently, I watched THE ASTONISHED HEART. Noel Coward wrote the original play, the screenplay and even performed the lead role in the film. I guess years later, he made fun of his performance, calling himself a bad actor. But he also wrote the score for this project, and I must say that even though the story is not one of his best, and his acting is not as good as other men of his generation, he has crafted a most superb musical composition. The movie should be watched just to enjoy the soundtrack alone!
So, do we call THE ASTONISHED HEART a masterpiece, or a flop? Is it art or something less than art? Even the creator (Mr. Coward) seems to offer conflicting testimony. But I think it does have artistic merit, and I am sure others do, too.
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