A lesser known but no less than brilliant David Lean film
As one of David Lean's lesser known films, I did not have any great expectations (excuse the pun) before watching this film. After watching the film, the only conclusion that I could draw is that it is lesser known because it is hard to acquire rather than because it is a lesser Lean film. Lean's directing in 'Madeleine' is on par with his grand visions of the two works of Charles Dickens that he had directed in the few years before this one. With Guy Green photographing again, and once again John Bryan involved in the film's production design, Lean creates a visual feast here that helps flesh out the themes of the screenplay.
The film is about a woman of wealth who is torn between a foreign working class man who she loves, and her father's expectations that she marries within her own class. Her father is a strict, conservative man, and Madeleine keeps her love affair a secret because she knows that he would not approve. However, she feels guilty for leading her lover on when she knows that it is futile. To make matters worse, her father is insisting that she lets an upper class young man romance her. Madeleine is unsure how to cope with the situation, and even considers using poison at one point in time.
The film has one of the best lighting designs that I have ever seen. Lean pays careful attention to shadows and the direction that light is coming from on screen. In the first scene when we see Madeleine and her lover Emile together outside, they are photographed with only back lighting so that their facial features are hardly seen, showing the secretive nature of their meeting. And after a few cuts they are then seen so that only their necks downwards are properly lit up. There is a definite contrast between shots like these are those that take place inside her house, where very strong lighting is used so that the skin on the characters all seem very white.
Another interesting use of light is in a conversation that Madeleine has with her father. The scene uses cuts between their faces, and her father is shot with light from a low camera angle so that his features are barely seen and that he seems dominating. In contrast, a slightly high camera angle is used on Madeleine with lighting work that shows her skin as grey with very visible distinguishing features. Whenever the sky is seen, it is also shown as moody and cloudy, which would be a combination of lighting and art direction. There is also one scene in which Madeleine says "No", and the light source for the shot when she says this is coming from below, with shadows falling from her nose above on her face.
The camera-work is brilliant too, especially in the scene with administering the poison. There is a low camera angle on a closeup of the bottle to make it menacing, then only seen in closeups, it is poured, while a girl in the background (not seen) sings a song about the death of a bird. The closeups and inserts are great throughout, as are Guy Green's angles. One of the best has a man's hand holding a cup in the foreground, while Madeleine is seen sitting down in the background. This is not a point of a view shot, but rather one that shows that Madeleine's attention is drawn to the cup. Amazing stuff.
The sound design of the film is also great, with certain sounds (footsteps, clanging) isolated when they are all that a character is listening out for. The audio in terms of music though is less than splendid. It is overly melodramatic, and tends to overplay the tension of certain scenes. The film also has another couple of detracting factors. One is that we never really feel the chemistry between Madeleine and her two lovers, which makes it slightly difficult to sympathise with what she is torn between. Also, the final third of the film is rather weak - the bulk of what it is of interest lies in the middle section. Either way, Lean's talent for directing makes this a very worthwhile experience overall, and it comes particularly recommended to those who liked his Charles Dickens films.
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