Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mrs. Miniver

3.5/4

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Richard Ney, Dame Mae Whitty, Henry Travers

Not Rated (probable PG for War Scenes)

War movies are usually about the battles.  Movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," "Fury" and others dominate the genre.  There are others, such "Schindler's List," which studied two men on opposite sides of the morality spectrum, or "Black Book," which used war as a setting for a psychological thriller.  But these movies are rare.  "Mrs. Miniver" is different in the sense that it looks at war from the perspective of average citizens.  It views war as a reality; something that didn't have a beginning, middle or end.  Air raids, destruction and death had become common place.  There really isn't anything quite like it.  The closest film I can think of is "Grave of the Fireflies," although that's a bit of a stretch.

The film opens shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  The Minivers are an upper class family with a penchant for living beyond their means.  Kay (Garson) has indulged herself by buying a fancy new hat while Clem (Pigeon) has splurged on a new car.  Life in their quaint little English town is simple; Lady Beldon (Whitty) is preparing to be awarded for her roses, Vin Miniver (Ney) is returning home from college and begins romancing Lady Beldon's granddaughter Carol (Wright).  Life changes for all when war breaks out.  Vin joins the Air Force, Clem has to save soldiers at Dunkirk, while Kay finds herself facing off against a downed German pilot in her kitchen.

What separates "Mrs. Miniver" from the rest is that it's not a narrative driven film.  Oh sure, the characters have motivations and perspectives on their situations.  They're not puppets wandering around to suit the needs of the plot like in a "Transformers" movie.  It's just that director William Wyler is more interested in illustrating the reality that these people find themselves in.  Life changes significantly if war is in your backyard.  Movies like "The Patriot" have touched on this theme, but only as a minor detail.  In "Mrs. Miniver," it's the soul focus.

The acting is exceptional.  Not surprising, since it racked up Oscar nods for five of its members (Garson, Pidgeon, Wright, Whitty and Travers).  Of those, Garson and Wright won (Garson made history on Oscar night when she gave a five-and-a-half minute long acceptance speech.  And you thought the modern Oscars were overlong...).  In the title role, Garson is exceptional.  She has a difficult job; creating a woman for whom war has become a fact of life, where worry and fear have become so commonplace that they are the norm.  And yet there is a strength and kindness to her that's infectious and irresistible.  She has good chemistry with her on-screen husband Walter Pidgeon (not surprising, since she had done so once before, and would do so again another six times, including the sequel).  Their relationship with each other rings true of a couple who have been together for many years.  The supporting cast is just as strong.  Teresa Wright is adorable as the lovely Carol, bringing life and a bit of spunk to what could have easily been a cliché.   Richard Ney turns on the charm as the handsome Vin, though ironically he would end up marrying his on-screen mother after filming completed...a union that lasted less than five years and killed his career.  Dame Mae Whitty appears as the brittle and difficult Lady Beldon while Henry Travers (aka Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life") appears in a small but important role as the simple Mr. Ballard.

Although not a traditional war film, it's never boring.  The characters are compelling, the romance is winning, and there are some scenes of high tension.  I counted at least three, including a bunker scene that is most revealing about the coping mechanisms a person must have had to build to survive such a situation and very suspenseful.

"Mrs. Miniver" was inspired by a series of columns by Jan Struther about life in England, which understandably reflected the change in England's psyche as war began brewing.  Anyone can see that this is a propaganda film, albeit one that's more about ideas and painting a reality than championing an ideal.  Though German, William Wyler was a fierce opponent of the Nazi regime and made this film to stir up opposition to the Third Reich.  Indeed, after filming was completed, he joined the war effort, serving as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps making propaganda films.  This isn't a flawless film, with some curious editing and shot choices, but its themes and characters are presented with clarity and potency.

"Mrs. Miniver" remains a cultural touchstone, a war film with a specific time and place that finds a new angle on WWII.  The conflict that took place between 1939 and 1945 has been, and will probably always be, fertile territory for film.  "Mrs. Miniver" is one of many that has taken the challenge of doing it justice and succeeded.

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