If you are looking for a breath of fresh Eire, you are in the wrong movie. Sir David Lean’s career-killing 1970 feature “Ryan’s Daughter” is basically a simple Irish adultery drama pumped up into a laborious epic designed to meet the aural and visual scope of the director’s acclaimed “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.” Alas, it proved to be the equivalent of building a mansion on the foundation for an outhouse.
Set in Ireland of 1916, the film’s basic plot is about two sets of troubles: the independence movement against the British occupation and the illicit affair between the young wife of a not-young schoolteacher and a shell-shocked British officer stationed in their small village on the southern Irish coast.
Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay of “Ryan’s Daughter” for his wife, Sarah Miles, with the hope it would propel her to stardom. It did the exact opposite, though no fault of Bolt’s. Miles is a competent actress but not a magnetic movie star who can carry a 206-minute movie (yes, 206 minutes!). Quite frankly, it is difficult to show any sympathy (let alone interest) in her character.
Things are also complicated by weird non-Irish casting. Robert Mitchum, inexplicably, was brought in as the gentle schoolteacher. Robert Mitchum as a rural Irish schoolteacher? Christopher Jones, a James Dean wannabe who had some popularity in the late 1960s, was also imported to play the British officer. He couldn’t do a British accent and his performance was subsequently dubbed, which may explain the disconnect in his mannequin-handsome physical appearance and inappropriately morose vocal performance. British actors Trevor Howard and Sir John Mills play the local priest and mute village idiot, respectively (Mills won a Supporting Actor Oscar, not deservedly), while Australian Leo McKern plays Miles’ father. Clearly Lean was unable to find anyone in Ireland who could do a reasonable imitation of an Irishman.
Maurice Jarre’s overbearing music score and Lean’s inane insistence for visuals of the artsy grandeur school only compound the confusion. By the end of this long, long movie, “Ryan’s Daughter” is as delicious as a half-forgotten pot of Mulligan Stew.
“Ryan’s Daughter” ended Lean’s career – he wouldn’t direct another film until “A Passage to India” in 1984. Christopher Jones ran away from acting and was unseen until a brief cameo in 1996’s “Mad Dog Time.” Sarah Miles never achieved the stardom anticipated from this film and went on to a fairly unremarkable career. Only Robert Mitchum’s career survived – but then again, what else would you expect from Robert Mitchum?