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World War I seems far away from Ireland's Dingle peninsula when Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy goes horseback riding on the beach with the young English officer. There was a magnetic attraction between them the day he was the only customer in her father's pub and Rosy was tending bar for the first time since her marriage to the village schoolmaster. Then one stormy night some Irish revolutionaries expecting a shipment of guns arrive at Ryan's pub. Is it Rosy who betrays them to the British? Will Shaugnessy take Father Collin's advice? Is the pivotal role that of the village idiot who is mute? Written by
Dale O'Connor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
So who's right? Is it a dull, lumbering vehicle with beautiful photography and little else, or is it nothing short of a masterpiece?
Nothing short of a masterpiece.
So what explains the critical shellacking it got back in the 1970s, and the lazy kicks in the ribs it continues to get today? I have only a weak suggestion, scarcely an explanation at all:
It was the zeitgeist. The early 1970s - although the trend really began in the late 1960s - saw the rise of a dreary, kitchen-sink style of film-making which is easiest to recognise by its dingy cinematography (although that's not all here is to it); it was the style in which the young lions of 1970s American cinema (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and if "THX-1138" is the kind of film people say it is, George Lucas) made their name. It's true that time has not been kind to this style, and that the greatest films of the 1970s (like this one) owe nothing to it, but to be fair, it IS possible to make good films in this style, and a few such were made. The greatest asset of standard 1970s film-making is, as it happens, one also possessed by Lean: the ability to be in deadly earnest, to banish any hint of irony or sarcasm when it's not wanted. But this doesn't change the fact that "Ryan's Daughter" is not only different from what was modish around the time it was made; it ADVERTISES this difference. It might very well have the most beautiful cinematography of any film shot anywhere at any time. What's more, gorgeous photography is part of the essence of the film, not something that one can grime down in one's imagination to reveal a distinctively '70s film, in which the composition of shots doesn't matter, there's no atmosphere to speak of and everybody mumbles half-formed thoughts in ungrammatical sentences. This film, simply and unmistakably, doesn't belong in the era in which it was made.
At any rate the stated reasons for condemning he film don't sound at all convincing. Pauline Kael made a big deal of the fact that she couldn't accept Robert Mitchum as a mild-tempered cuckolded husband, which leads me to conclude that (a) she'd just seen "Cape Fear" the previous night, and (b) her brain was tired that week. In a way I can appreciate her difficulty, since when I saw the film, I wasn't aware that it WAS Robert Mitchum until I saw the end credits, so entirely convincing is he (and everyone else, for that matter). Another thing I've seen written a couple of times is that the film is "over-produced", a charge it's hard to make sense of. So Lean made a better film than, strictly speaking, he had to, in order to be faithful to the script? And this is meant to be a CRITICISM?
The only complaint that has justice on its side is the one directed at Maurice Jarre's score, too relentlessly jaunty at ill-chosen moments, particularly in the early arts of the film, without enough meat on the bones of the tunes to justify the fact that the music is really doing little to help. But even here, criticism is exaggerated. A majority of films released since, say, 1990, and this includes a majority of GOOD films, have musical scores that contribute even less, and are even more ill-judged; with "Ryan's Daughter" far more than with those films, complaining about the music seems petty.
Nothing so beautiful as "Ryan's Daughter" could possibly be other than good; the story is a fine one, simple in shape yet morally complex, and it's honestly told, with each point of view made vivid. The three hours are there to be relished. Lean uses the length of his film to make you wish it were longer still.
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