There's a harsh juxtaposition of technique towards the end of David Lean's maligned 200 minute 1970 drama "Ryan's Daughter" that, for me, aligned all my lingering thoughts of greatness into sharp contrast. After falling in love with a tortured soldier (Christopher Jones), young wife Rosy (Sarah Miles) runs out before daybreak to catch a fleeting embrace with him on the hill overlooking their house. The music swells to a lush ovation before cutting back to silence (suddenly) as older husband Charles (Robert Mitchum) watches them morosely from the window. Add to the fact that Lean (and screenwriter Robert Bolt) refuse to create violent physical tension between the two men that would usually provide the undertone for such a film dealing with turn of the century love triangles, and "Ryan's Daughter" is an immense achievement in understated filmmaking crossed with the overstated aesthetic of Lean's usual compositions. It may be sanctimonious to declare this film my very favorite of Lean's over the more prestigious "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", but there it is.
Released fairly late in Lean's career (in which its chilly critical reception would see the filmmaker not craft another film until 1984, effectively missing out on an entire decide of great revisionist 70's filmmaking), Ryan's Daughter" is about so much more than the damning relationship that flares up between the trio. As Rosy, Sarah Miles virtually throws herself at older schoolteacher Mitchum in the beginning of the film because she feels her youth will be wasted in her cloistered, hermetic coastal Irish village. When the handsome (and dare I say pre-goth) and injured soldier Major Doryan shows up to command the small military derricks on the outskirts of town, its almost as if fate is tempting Rosy and telling her she made the matrimonial leap just a bit early. Transcribe this narrative to the forlorn heartlands of Kansas or the snow swept plains of Montana in a Howard Hawks film, and "Ryan's Daughter" is essentially a universal paean to passionate choices and fluctuating feelings that have bridled humanity since the beginning of time.
But this is certainly not Montana or Kansas. "Ryan's Daughter" situates itself in 1916 smack in the breast of IRA territory, often scurrying into side-plots that will eventually draw Doryan into the fray and divide Rosy against the very loyal townsfolk. While some deride the film for its length- and mostly the asides for the Oscar winning performance of the town fool played by veteran actor John Mills who just happens to be in every important place at once throughout the film- plus the extra subtext with IRA conspirators, a brash town priest (Trevor Howard) and Rosy's own cowardly barkeep father (Leo McKern) who harbors his own impetuous and damning actions, all of this establishes an atmosphere and world that feels like its widening into something sinister. In fact, the IRA and "The Troubles" would blossom a few years later. Ireland's coast would change dramatically over the coming years. England's reach would continue to strangle the countryside. In that regard, "Ryan's Daughter" and its love triangle could be read as metaphorical innocence morphing into a turbulent rupture of family, home and state.
Or maybe I'm translating way too much into it. I fell in love with this film from the outset. Not only does it exude a master's touch- just watch the early scene where Rosy awaits Charles in his schoolhouse and the camera pans across walls and doors from her point of view as Charles enters the other room and his lumbering physique is heard coming closer, which feels like an imprinted visual touch adapted later by everyone from David Fincher to P.T. Anderson- but it's an old fashioned romance that rarely saw the light of day as the 70's rolled in. And that was the general complaint against Lean's film, that he was regurgitating previous themes and motifs from earlier efforts and that, at best, "Ryan's Daughter" was second-tier copy. My reply? If this is second tier, then I wish more filmmakers would attempt it.