When I was a teenager, I watched the 1999 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, and fell in love with it. It had such a wonderful balance of romance, tragedy and theological inquiry. Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore had such incredible chemistry and intensity as the doomed wartime and post war lovers. And so I felt rather a lot of trepidation at watching this version, even though it was the original adaptation, and had such a fine cast, with Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr playing the lovers, Peter Cushing as Kerr’s husband, and John Mills as a private detective.
But I felt that there was no better time than now, when Michaela was hosting this Blogathon in time for Van Johnson’s 103rd birthday. I am so happy that I decided to finally watch this film, as it is my favourite of Johnson’s films I’ve seen. I always thought he was a fine actor, but in this film he shows such wonderful range and emotion, and is so well supported by a brilliant performance from Kerr and a subtle, but lovely turn by Cushing.
The film tells the story of an American writer, Maurice (played by Van Johnson), living in London during World War II, because he has been discharged from the Army. He has some half hearted plans about writing a novel about a civil servant, and so makes the acquaintance of the epitome of said subject, Henry (played by a baby Peter Cushing), and his startlingly beautiful wife, Sarah (played by Deborah Kerr). Instead of writing the novel, Maurice and Sarah embark on a passionate affair, a meeting of souls. But fate intercedes in the form of a serious Blitz attack. Sarah thinks that Maurice has been killed during the attack, and prays to God that he will live, but this prayer has a caveat: in exchange for Maurice’s life, she will end their affair. When he seems to be divinely resurrected, Sarah gives him up and terrible heartbreak and tragedy comes upon both of them.
The story has much of Graham Greene’s signature themes, primarily that of the exploration of the external and internal world in terms of the Catholic perspective, and how the rigid tenets of the religion often lead to terrible guilt, and a misconstruing of one’s spiritual identity. This is personified in the character of Sarah, whose religious guilt was born before she was even cognisant of it, and blooms through her all consuming love for Maurice.
All three lead characters experience intense character development, motivated by different things. For Sarah, it is as already stated a terrible guilt, both due to what she perceives as her relationship with God, and her responsibility towards Henry, who calls on her for loyalty at the worst time. Maurice because he becomes aware of his own driftless existence and loneliness, both of which are exposed due to his love for Sarah. And Henry, whose stiff upper lip civil servant life is thrown into question and upheaval when he realises that he has never given Sarah enough love.
The film is given life by both the brilliant screenplay and sensitive direction. Lenore Coffee, who wrote the screenplays for both Sudden Fear and Footsteps in the Fog, adapts Greene’s novel in a way that makes the characters extremely vivid and relatable. The dialogue is never stilted, particularly between Sarah and Maurice when they speak of their love for each other, which is a delicate, doomed thing from the start. John Mills, who plays the private detective who is hired later in the film, is given wonderful dialogue, which he delivers with great relish, pronouncing opposite is “op-oh-sight”. His is the gentle comic relief, not too overstated or slapstick.
Edward Dymtryk, who directed one of my favourite noir’s, Murder, My Sweet, clearly understands the subject matter in the same way that Coffee does, for he leads us through the dream world of the lovers, often in rain lit nights, and sharply contrasts this with the unremitting ugliness of the wartime bombings and shattered exterior of the postwar structures, with equal adeptness. The manner in which he shoots the scene in which Maurice is seemingly resurrected from the lover’s differing viewpoints is very well done, as is the way in which they appear afterwards, their clothes and faces covered with dust and debris; Maurice a bleeding dazed man, Sarah’s face lit so that her anguish is incredibly apparent.
It is the performances in the film, however, that make it so memorable. Although Peter Cushing, understandably, is not afforded the amount of screen time that Johnson and Kerr are, he gives a well rounded performance that highlights that of the leads. The scene in which he confesses his love for Sarah is particularly poignant, as he shows the terrible discomfort that Henry feels at having to confess his feelings after a life time of being told that it “isn’t really something you get into over a cup of tea”. You almost feel like crying with him. And although you know he is the obstacle to Sarah and Maurice being together, Cushing shows that there is no possible way for Henry to comprehend this.
Kerr gives one of the best, if not the best, performance of her career in this film. As Sarah she is incredibly beautiful, tragic and relatable. I have often heard people describe Kerr as too rigid for their tastes, something I’ve never agreed with, and this role absolutely dashes that perception to pieces. Not for a moment is Kerr “rigid”. The amount of emotions she displays is almost exhausting. And it is primarily done through her facial expressions, her body language, especially as her turmoil becomes more inward, as her loneliness, guilt and anguish build to a desperate point, where her physical health is severely jeopardised. There is no glamour in this portrayal. Although as I said she is beautiful as always, there is no attempt to be glamourise throughout the film. In the end, when Sarah’s fate becomes inevitable, Kerr looks like some broken winged angel, her eyes dark and lost, her body made small against Johnson and Cushing’s.
Before I watched this film I had a very different perception of Johnson. I had only ever seen him in lighter roles, such as in The Good Old Summertime opposite Judy Garland. And the one serious role I had seen him in, that of his role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris, did little for me, which I think was not entirely poor Johnson’s fault. But this film has changed my perception of his talents utterly. The amount of emotions he displays are matched only by Kerr, and their chemistry is utterly wonderful. The way Johnson holds Kerr, the way he shows Maurice’s desperate desire for Sarah gets into your soul. You understand how desperately he needs her, and how this desperation is too much for either of them to really survive.
I firmly believe that Kerr deserved her nomination for best actress at the BAFTAs and Dymtryk for his best director nod at the Palme d’Or, I think that it really is such a pity that Johnson received no nominations for his performance. He embodies the role of Maurice so completely, and shows his transformation from careless writer, to passionate lover to broken man with such fluidity. There is nothing choppy about the manner in which he conveys this in the space of under two hours. And when he is at the height of his despair, there is nothing manic about his performance, which is entirely fitting. His is a pain, like Sarah’s, that is undisclosed. When he smiles at her when they meet again after a long separation, my heart wanted to shatter into a thousand pieces. His face at the end of the film, when he is alone, surrounded by the evidence of a life that will never be the same again, is utterly soul wrenching.
Overall, this is a film that tells a real story. A film that shows that human beings often lack that one vital skill: the ability to communicate. And how our long held beliefs, conscious or not, can destroy us so utterly if we do not recognise how they shape our lives. Human beings have what is called a soul bond, and when that bond is severed, the process of reparation is often unsuccessful because we can not see that a soul recognises another soul, and that that recognition should never be denied.
This is my contribution for The Third Van Johnson Blogathon being hosted by the lovely Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Please visit her blog for more love letters to this wonderful actor.