Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. United Kingdom, 1960. Jerry Wald Productions. Screenplay by Gavin Lambert, T.E.B. Clarke, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. Produced by Jerry Wald. Music by Mario Nascimbene. Production Design by Thomas N. Morahan. Costume Design by Margaret Furse. Film Editing by Gordon Pilkington. Academy Awards 1960. Cannes Film Festival 1960. Golden Globe Awards 1960.
Adaptation of the second half of D.H. Lawrence’s masterful novel that takes liberties with dramatization but has at its core the same essential focus, a relationship between mother and son that has near-Oedipal levels of dependence. Wendy Hiller is perfectly cast as the woman who takes the disappointment of her marriage to a violent coal miner (Trevor Howard) and transforms it into hope for the future of her beloved son (Dean Stockwell). She kids herself that she cares only about his financial future, pushing him to pursue his studies and not work in the Nottingham mines with his father, but the look on her face whenever he spends the day in the company of a girl speaks to a more complicated fixation on wanting to control him. Stockwell shows romantic interest in proper Heather Sears and, later, sexual interest in the forward-thinking and already married Mary Ure, each encounter with either of them increasing the tension between himself and his mother. The story is not interested in pushing the boundaries of propriety or taste with this familial relationship, but focuses instead on examining the ways in which the deepest loves can suffocate those we mean to support; Stockwell is in a constant struggle between wanting to be an independent adult and feeling guilt over the fact that his achievements only serve to emphasize his mother’s disappointment and vulnerability. Key plot details have been changed from the novel (the screenwriters leave a sister out and vastly alter the trajectory of one brother, not to mention a massive change to the way mother and son end things), but cinematographer Jack Cardiff does a terrific job as director in getting rich and sympathetic drama out of the characters even if he doesn’t quite nail Lawrence’s perpetual feeling of sensuality (that wouldn’t really happen until Ken Russell tried his hand at adapting the author, in a different and freer era). Freddie Francis won a well-deserved Oscar for the beautiful cinematography, but the film is ruled by sensitive and nuanced performances: the masterful Hiller commands the screen with a portrayal that could easily be sentimental treacle but, in her hands, is something fascinating and one of her best achievements on film.