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Ryan's Daughter

After the critical acclaim heaped on his epic films The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, David Lean brought his prodigious gifts to the sumptuous Irish drama Ryan's Daughter (1970). It shares a lot with its more successful predecessors — all are large in scope and visually beautiful. They all set human stories of love, passion, and sacrifice against the backdrop of war. And they're all really, really long. With an original screenplay by his Lawrence and collaborator Robert Bolt, the film wasn't treated kindly by critics and is regarded as one of the director's few missteps in his stellar career, and the critical panning it received is widely regarded as the reason that the famously thin-skinned Lean didn't return to directing until A Passage To India 14 years later. Set in a small Irish village during WWI the story, very loosely based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, concerns Rosy (Sarah Miles), the strong-willed, romantically inclined daughter of the town's pub owner (Leo McKern). Restless and seeking fulfillment of both the emotional and physical kind, she marries Charles Shaunghnessy (Robert Mitchum), the village schoolteacher. Middle-aged, recently widowed, and a bit dull, Charles' life of quiet evenings listening to Beethoven and pressing flowers — combined with his hasty, lackluster lovemaking technique — only makes the libidinous young Rosy all the more itchy for romance. For no good reason other than she likes his looks, she enters into an affair with Maj. Doryan (Christopher Jones) the newly arrived commanding officer of the British army garrison stationed outside of town. Unsurprisingly, what with everyone in the tiny village being Irish and Catholic and all, Rosy soon finds herself shunned by the small-minded, British-hating locals as a harlot and a traitor.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Ryan's Daughter is the film's attempted breadth. The story demands intimacy, yet Lean presents it as a 206-minute, Super Panavision saga, awkwardly threading a subplot about IRA gunrunners into the tale. But infidelity and "Irish troubles" in a small seaside village simply don't match the sweep of River Kwai's adventure in war-torn Burma or Zhivago's Russian revolution. Compounding the mistakes is the casting of Jones as the shell-shocked, ostensibly irresistible Maj. Doryan. In the role originally written for Marlon Brando, the actor — who had enjoyed a brief flicker of almost-fame in the '60s as a possible successor to James Dean — so lacked the acting skills necessary for such a pivotal role that Lean cut down his screen-time during shooting and limited his dialogue, finally hiring British actor Julian Hollaway to dub all of Jones' scenes because his accent was so bad. After a very, very long lovemaking scene in the forest to illustrate how much hotter the major is than Rosy's husband, the rest of their relationship takes place off screen — not exactly the best way to sell a love story. Mitchum, however, contributes a lovely, understated performance as the loving, cuckolded Charles, again proving what an underrated actor he was. Miles (who was married to screenwriter Bolt) is excellent, as well. Most of the cast is terrific, in fact, save Jones — with much praise on the film's release going to John Mills, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing the crippled, mute, mentally challenged village idiot, Michael. Unfortunately, Mills is also one of the film's greatest weaknesses. Despite his addition to the long Academy roster of performances that involve prosthetics and mental retardation, Michael is so peripheral to the main story — yet so tenaciously present throughout the film — that he serves entirely as a connecting device, overhearing conversations, mocking the pompous Brit officers, and, indirectly, causing some excitement during the denouement (the film's working title was, interestingly, Michael's Day.) Despite his ubiquitousness (or perhaps because of it), he's more an irritant than an asset. The picture's second Academy Award was for cinematography, and that one was certainly deserved, with Freddie Young's camera lovingly capturing both the epic beauty of the Irish coastline and the dreary, suffocating mundanity of the village. Despite some terrific acting and beautiful scenery, it's a long slog to get through Ryan's Daughter, and it may be a journey best undertaken by only the most tolerant of Lean fans.

Warner Home Video's two-disc Special Edition of Ryan's Daughter offers a stunning new anamorphic transfer from restored 65mm materials in the original aspect ratio (2.20:1) of its 70mm theatrical release. It's beyond clean — it's breathtaking, with gorgeous color, terrific contrast and virtually no grain, scratches, or other visible flaws. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English or French, with English, French and Spanish subtitles) is fine, but a little shallow and harsh — those used to the big, surround audio mixes available in more recent films may be disappointed, but it's clean and serves the film. Disc One offers the first part of the movie with optional audio commentary featuring just about anyone ever involved with the film that DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau (who also appears) could muster — Lady Sandra Lean, Sarah Miles, Robert Mitchum's daughter Petrine Day Mitchum, directors John Boorman and Hugh Hudson, critic Richard Schickel, and a host of assistant directors, art directors, and even a stuntman. All were obviously recorded separately, and their reminisces are interesting and widely varied. The first disc also includes two theatrical trailers. Disc Two continues with the second half of the film and three featurettes: The new "Making of Ryan's Daughter" offers three sub-features — "Ryan's Daughter: Storm Rising," (27 min.), "Ryan's Daughter: Storm Chaser" (20 min.), and "Ryan's Daughter: The Eye of the Storm" (14 min.), all offering sound-bites from Lean's family, friends, and critics interwoven with film footage. Also on board are two behind-the-scenes featurettes made to promote the film's release, "We're the Last of the Traveling Circuses" (20 min.) and "Ryan's Daughter: A Story of Love" (6 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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