Monday, July 2, 2012

119. THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950)

Terence Fisher co-directed this romantic tragedy, based on Noël Coward's play, with its producer Anthony Darnborough. It was adapted by, composed by, and also stars Coward, who reportedly replaced Michael Redgrave in the lead during production. Despite his authorship and there being some authenticity of pain in the writing, Coward is too controlled to make a persuasively reckless leading man in this scenario, in which a happily-married, successful psychologist embarks on a year-long affair with a former schoolmate of his wife.

Dr. Christian Faber (Coward) and his wife Barbara (BRIEF ENCOUNTER's Celia Johnson) are a seasoned couple and attempt to deal with this unestranging attraction in an enlightened, tolerant manner, but something unhinges Chris in his escalating obsession with Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton); his possessive jealousies flare up not only in regard to present, unfounded suspicions but about the men in her past, even dead ones. Johnson is especially good, projecting outward calm and resignation as well as internal suffering, and Leighton's doe-eyed society clotheshorse has her best moments when reacting with shock to the violent changes in her lover's character. Coward himself effortlessly embodies the initial protagonist, a man utterly in charge of himself to the point of seeming wholly cerebral, and he's convincing enough in his final stages, absolutely stricken by an unsalvageable amour fou, but the all-important transition, the overpowering passion he needs to evoke with Leighton, is characterized with such restraint and stocked with mutually pithy sophistication patter that there's no getting under their clammy skins.

For all this, the film is technically very well made and shot (by Fisher's future Hammer DP Jack Asher), though it looks roughly five-to-ten years older than it really is. With a different leading man, it might have looked forward in an odd way to the warring repressed and liberated personalities of the tragic hero of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Fisher's next film, SO LONG AT THE FAIR (also 1950, also co-directed by Darnborough), was the earliest of his films to feel personal.

Viewed on Netflix.

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