The awkward sex of "Ryan's Daughter" (1970)

Christopher Jones, Sarah Miles, and tree branch in Ryan's Daughter.

David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) recently squeaked onto the list of the 1,000 greatest films ever made as compiled by Bill Georgaris of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?—albeit at #912.  As I had never seen the film, I tracked it down at Amazon OnDemand.  It’s an interesting failure, a bloated, middling, overlong melodrama that feels like it was adapted from a best-selling novel but was in fact an original story written by screenwriter Robert “A Man for All Seasons” Bolt, cribbing from both D. H. Lawrence and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  The film sports some beautiful cinematography by the great Freddie Young (see below), and features John Mills in a supporting role as a village idiot that’s ham-fisted and grotesque but also kind of clever, narrative-device-wise.  (Both Young and Mills won Oscars for their work.)  But the whole thing never really comes together, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the central love affair between Rosy Shaughnessy, neé Ryan (Sarah Miles), and the shell-shocked Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) never doesn’t feel weird. 

Their affair is not supposed to feel weird.  It’s supposed to feel so passionate and torrid that Rosy and Doryan are compelled to keep running off at all hours of the day and night to have sex with each other on hilltops and in forests.  The first time Doryan and Rosy make love, we are meant to believe that she is being made to feel things that her husband, the prudent, mild-mannered schoolteacher Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum!), has never been able to awaken in her.  On their wedding night Shaughnessy lies on top of Rosy just long enough for her to experience an initial flare of pain, whereupon he mumbles an apology and rolls off.  But Rosy’s tryst in the woods with Doryan is just as awkwardly staged.  Doryan hovers over her, grimacing, his body stiff as a board, one hand cupping her breast; it feels less like an act of passion and more of a blocking tactic, lest the censors freak out at the sight of Sarah Miles’ nipple.  Rosy turns her eyes heavenward, makes a faraway look and sighs weakly.  There’s an oddly composed shot of her clutching at a tree branch (see top).  Thus, we are asked to believe, is she “born: a woman” (to quote Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

Part of the problem seems to be the casting: Christopher Jones—wan and thin-lipped, with dead eyes and a sour, down-turned mouth—has negative sex appeal.  (Lean apparently wanted Brando, though at that time he would have been too old for the part by at least two decades.)  Everything about Sarah Miles feels disembodied even after Rosy undergoes her sexual awakening.  There is nothing sensual about her, just as there is nothing sensual (let alone sexual) about Jones.  Meanwhile, Mitchum’s rakishness and volatility are utterly wasted in his role as the impotent Shaughnessy.  (You would think that with Mitchum for a husband one wouldn’t need to go looking for sex outside the home.)  

A weirdly dissipated Robert Mitchum as Shaughnessy.

The awkward sex of Ryan’s Daughter has just as much to do with its historical moment.  At a time when American films like Midnight Cowboy, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and Two for the Road had already begun to modernize sex on-screen—to say nothing of European fare like La Collectionneuse, made the same year as Ryan’s Daughter—Lean’s film was bound to feel quaint in its very attempt to appear hip and racy.  I suppose Lean’s reputation has never rested on his facility with erotic material.  Whatever sexual tension drives Brief Encounter also depends upon its continual repression.  There is Lawrence of Arabia… But that’s another story.                                 

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