Tag Archives: Terence Rattigan

The Sound Barrier (1952, David Lean)

There’s a lot to The Sound Barrier. Outside the truly magnificent aerial photography, not much of it has to do with the film itself. Other than director Lean and writer Terence Rattigan rewriting actual history to make it so a private British aircraft company “broke” the sound barrier some five years after Chuck Yeager did it for the United States Air Force. And Rattigan and Lean didn’t keep it technically accurate? I guess… anglo-pride or something.

So the gross historical inaccuracies aside, Sound Barrier adds up to being about why toxic masculinity is wonderful and women–like de facto lead Ann Todd–are silly for doubting men in their heartless pursuits. See, Todd’s dad is the owner of the private aircraft company–Ralph Richardson in a performance far better than the film needs or deserves–and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone to break that sound barrier.

Five years after it actually happened. But whatever.

I mean, even if the film’s set in 1947 or whatever–one of the events portrayed happened in 1946–it should’ve been technically accurate. Lean goes out of his way to use that amazing aerial photography of the test flights and so on, why not have an accurate script. But there’s also the problem of John Justin, who’s got kids presumably born after the war ended and they’re not three or four.

The film starts during the war–another weird thing about Sound Barrier is how assured everyone is the war’s end is imminent even when, you know, it’s not–with Todd marrying flier Nigel Patrick. Patrick and Justin are pals. Todd brings Patrick home to meet dad Richardson and brother Denholm Elliot. Elliot’s the best thing in the movie, though Justin’s all right too. Rattigan and Lean don’t have much use for Elliot, however, because he’s not the real man flier Richardson wants him to be. Thank goodness Todd married one in Patrick.

After the war, Patrick starts test piloting jets for Richardson. They’re going to break that sound barrier, even though the whole thing traumatizes Todd. She goes off to the movies during his flights so she doesn’t have to hear it. She’s just a silly woman, however. Patrick tells her so, Richardson tells her so, and by the end of the movie, The Sound Barrier tells her so.

The film’s a melodrama without much in the way of melodramatics. Todd’s performance is flat, ditto Patrick’s. Patrick at least seems like he should be superficial and (not maliciously) insensitive, but Todd is ostensibly the heart of the film. Not so, because she’s not a man. And only men, it turns out, can really experience things. Women are too busy worrying about winter coats and trying to one up the Joneses. Dinah Sheridan, as Justin’s wife, has the entirely thankless role of exemplifying how Todd’s worry-warting is so dumb.

And even though Richardson is awesome, he’s utterly devoid of any humanity. The film revels in it.

There’s no tension, there’s no suspense (the ending is forecast from literally the first scene), there’s no romance. Todd and Patrick do manage to have some chemistry, but it’s only because they’re being held prisoner by controlling Richardson. Silly Patrick even thinks Todd might be right about Richardson being bad news. Thank goodness he comes around; so the film’s not just great fodder for toxic masculinity discussions, there’s also the exceptional patriarchal bent.

Lean’s direction is competent. Rattigan’s script is exceptionally boring. Maybe at the time, if you were a British moviegoer who really hated Americans and willfully ignored recent history, you could get jingoistic about it. But not really, because it’s not about British ingenuity or anything, it’s about Richardson being awesome because he’s a bastard and Todd better come around to realizing it and embracing it. It’s about Todd realizing she’s a silly woman who just needs to listen to the man. It’s all very yucky.

Great photography from Jack Hildyard.

The Sound Barrier is never good. It’s never compelling. It’s absurdly lacking in any kind of insight, whether into its paper thin characters or its made up flight science. It’s not even interested in technical minutiae, which–for a while–seemed like it would be. But it’s never anywhere near as bad as the third act turns out to be. Maybe having a full stop false ending in the second act hurt. It doesn’t matter. The third act and then the finale crash harder than the jet planes do and they make these huge holes in the ground.

Not even plane designer Joseph Tomelty, who’s lovable from five minutes in, can survive that last act.

The Sound Barrier’s bunk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by David Lean; written by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by Malcolm Arnold; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Ann Todd (Susan), Nigel Patrick (Tony), Ralph Richardson (J.R.), John Justin (Philip), Denholm Elliott (Chris), Dinah Sheridan (Jess), and Joseph Tomelty (Will).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DAVID LEAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


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