My Thoughts: Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
About two hours into Ryan’s Daughter, I was only thinking about an episode of “Seinfeld” I’d watched a few days earlier. That’s right. My mind wouldn’t stop mulling over the “English Patient” episode where Elaine finally slouches over next to J. Peterman in the middle of a screening of the film and screams “It’s too long!”
That how I feel about David Lean’s movie, and my stray thoughts present two problems. First, the film is a simple love story stretched into an unbearable running length. And secondly, I was thinking about an episode of “Seinfeld” for about the last hour of the picture when I should’ve been wrapped up in the action. Not a strong vote of confidence.
Set in small-town Ireland in 1916, just months before the revolution, Lean’s three-and-a-half hour saga is one of the best filmed pictures I’ve ever seen. But because it chronicles nothing of great importance–a passionless marriage, infidelity, some political events that’re of absolutely no significance to the film’s outcome–watching Ryan’s Daughter is mostly better viewed with the mute button pressed.
The Plot Points: Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is at about that age when good young girls get married. The men in her life all tell her this repeatedly. Then, one day, she inexplicably hits on the headmaster of the quaint one-room schoolhouse in Dingle Bay, Charles Shaughnessey (Robert Mitchum). Because they’re both sort of good looking, and he’s smart, they get hitched.
After a few scenes, we see why they’re going to be bored with one another. He’s a stiff, proper middle-aged man with kindness buried deep in his heart, and she’s not terribly bright. His kindness, of course, is only evident after Rosy begins an affair with a British solider named Doryan (Christopher Jones). There seems to be no excuse for their affair except that Lean wanted to film one incredible sex scene. Other than that drawn-out sequence, neither of them share much in the way of conversation or even passion.
I’m not even being flip–the development of the soldier’s character is so bad that their looks are conceivably the only reason they’re attracted to one another. What’s worse, when the soldier becomes a ‘major’ character, Robert Mitchum disappears from screen for about 45 minutes. Does it really make sense to take one of the film’s few assets and jettison it from the pic just to develop an underwritten romance?
Though Ryan’s Daughter is terribly long, it’s mere formula. We know that eventually we’ll find out how much Robert Mitchum loves his wife, yet she’ll have already shamed herself through her infidelity.
The whole town, comprised of standard-issue Irishfolk, will know that her and the soldier have been sleeping together because, as everyone knows, all towns in Ireland are completely populated by people who get drunk and gossip all day instead of doing real work.
And we know that so many small towns in movies include (a) a self-righteous priest who tells everyone how they must act and announces his authority usually with silence, his white clerical collar doing 75% of the talking; and (b) the village idiot who, with lack of teeth and the inability to even utter the word “Aye,” still manages to know everything about everyone in town and communicate it through exaggerated body language. While early on, the people in town will torture this man, they’ll later come to trust him as some kind of oracle.
Lean, who directed such brilliant films as Bridge on The River Kwai, A Passage To India and Lawrence of Arabia should be ashamed to assemble an “epic” (I use the word loosely) from such bare-bones stereotypes. I spent several months in Ireland and that clearly makes me no expert on the culture. But, after watching Ryan’s Daughter, I realized that, in my time in the Republic, I hadn’t met more than about five people that in any way resembled his characters. These people, from Rosy’s father who manages the town pub, to the massively irritating village idiot, are crafted out of wives tales. They don’t behave like humans; they’re cogs in the machine of Lean’s plot.
While Ryan’s Daughter features two mostly blah romances and a ridiculously underdeveloped political subplot, it’s not entirely without merit. For starters, it is extremely well-filmed and the lead performances are, for the most part, quite good. While I criticize some aspects of Rosy Ryan’s and Charles Shaughnessey‘s characters, I think they only seem so stupid because the plot corners them into such obsessive one-dimensionality.
Hilariously, though the town is full of these stereotypical hard-drinking, song-singing Irish folk, Robert Mitchum, the only American in the cast, seems the most authentically Irish. His performance is the best thing in the film. I liked his reserve and obvious intelligence, and, in the end, when he and Sarah Miles actually start conversing about her infidelity, you only think, “Why couldn‘t the rest of the movie been this insightful?”
Sarah Miles, an actress I’m not very familiar with, is also good in stretches, subtly communicating her hurt and dissatisfaction with facial expressions.
The scenes between Mitchum and Miles, far too infrequent, are very good. And moments between Trevor Howard, who plays the priest, and Miles are fine–there are two scenes on the beach between both characters that are breathtaking, scenes where the beautiful landscape, while always evident, doesn’t obscure genuine communication.
Still, you’ve got to think about Lean’s film in terms of numbers. That is, seven or eight truly good scenes don’t carry a film that’s over 200 minutes long.
Ryan’s Daughter eventually just falls into a trap of five scenes of lame-brained gossip and beautiful scenery coupled with one good scene of character development. We expect Lean to make a brilliantly-shot picture–and he does. But at the end, we’d prefer less sweeping images of Dingle Bay’s shoreline and some more substantial dialogue. Understanding the beauty of the film unfortunately requires a major time sacrifice on your part.