Mrs Miniver (1942)
I like to think of this project as having a kind of meta-narrative, an over-arching story which registers key moments in international history. Mrs Miniver is a landmark in this meta-story. It heralds one of the darkest times humanity has ever known; the onset of World War II. Beautiful and poignant, it is easily a film highlight.
Set in a quaint area on Britain’s southern coast, Mrs Miniver begins early in the year of 1939. The town is flourishing, and one of the local gardeners has just named his new breed of rose the ‘Mrs Miniver’ after a wealthy town lady he adores. But we are poised for bad news. War is a hot topic of discussion, inevitable, a matter of fact, yet held defiantly on the periphery of day to day life, treated in much the same way as the Boer War in Cavalcade. I suppose that this is a natural way for people to act towards war, pretending that it’s not there until the first bombs finally start hitting.
The shock through the church congregation when the news finally arrives is palpable, and we feel deep empathy for the way that war has changed the life of the ‘everyday’ British family. As the violence escalates, a German pilot crash-lands in the fields and terrorises Mrs Miniver, and a harrowing scene with the family drinking tea in their backyard bomb-shelter leaves a chilling impression of life in England under the Blitzkrieg.
There were two technical elements which really impressed me with this film. The first was the acting – Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon share a tension that is electrical, and even when there are no lines to hang off they are superb. The second is the stunning arrangement of the shots, what I have come to understand and describe as the mise-en-scene. The depth of space, the arrangement of bodies, the motion of the camera – it is as dynamic and sophisticated as anything I have seen before, and reminded me in many instances of a theatre performance in the way it played with stillness and motion.
As things hit crisis point during one particularly intense air raid, I wait nervously for some sort of resolution. But there is none. The film ends with no sign of the war finishing, and it is here that things finally hit home. For the people who made this film, there is no end to the war. This is not an era in history or a historical perspective – this is life. The film fades out with the roar of fighterplanes in the distance, and we’re left to contemplate the uncertainties of the future. Harrowing, sobering and unmissable.