Friday, December 3, 2010

Clunky Acting Cannot Keep How Green Was My Valley Down!

The Good: Good, Modernist feel, Interesting characters, Decent-enough DVD bonus features
The Bad: Acting is stiff in many places, Voice-overs get monotonous.
The Basics: Endearing and surprisingly enduring (though it has good, universal themes of innocence lost), How Green Was My Valley is entertaining and worth watching!

When I started my investigations into every film that won Best Picture, there were strangely very few surprises for me. Popular movies that rocked the box office (especially at the time) seldom did as well as artsy films (Annie Hall defeating Star Wars: A New Hope being a prime example) and almost all of the acknowledged great films of American cinema were there. The most pleasant surprise for me had to be when I discovered that Citizen Kane did not win the Best Picture Oscar. Yes, I am one of the rare film critics who is not enamored with that supposedly-great film. So, when the library got in How Green Was My Valley for me to screen, I sat down with a sense of anticipation, prepared to thoroughly enjoy it.

And largely, I did enjoy How Green Was My Valley, though the Voice-overs became tiresome to me. Largely, I enjoyed the sense of the world changing around young Huw and the fact that unlike so many movies, the sense of futility is maintained throughout the story of a boy’s disillusionment. More than hinging on a single gimmick, How Green Was My Valley is a boy waking up to a world of conflict in a working-class Welsh mining town. As always in such cases, this is a review of the film How Green Was My Valley, not the book upon which it was based. While there are no doubt cinematic elements changed from the novel or better explained in the book, I refuse to consider them as this is just a pure review of what is on screen. Moreover, problems with stiff acting are not likely to be fixed within the context of a novel! That said . . .

It is a time of change in Cwm Rhondda, a mining town in Wales where the air was once clean and the lifestyle simple. Huw Morgan was growing up with his mother, five brothers, one sister and foreman father, watching the men from the mine return to town each day singing. The women, including his sister Angharad, have bathing facilities ready for the men when they arrive home so they do not track the coal dust everywhere and Huw relishes the company of his family, including getting spending money from his father. But as the opening monologue implies, Cwm Rhondda is in a state of change and Huw’s world is soon to be rocked.

Angharad and Huw’s mentor, Mr. Gruffyd, grow quite fond of one another before Angharad is courted by the mine’s owner’s son, Iestyn, whom she marries. While the preacher Mr. Gruffyd and Angharad have great chemistry, the pragmatism of marrying Iestyn leads Angharad astray and Huw is left feeling betrayed, a condition which permeates the film when rumors of an affair between Angharad and Gruffyd circulate in the community and force the preacher out. Gruffyd, though, is an ally to Huw, helping him when he falls into freezing water and rescues his mother. As he is rehabilitated (he cannot use his legs for some time after the accident) he and Gruffyd grow closer. But the Morgan family deals with strife when labor conditions lead some of Huw’s brothers to join a strike, upsetting their father and Huw (still fairly young) goes to work in the mine.

In many ways, How Green Was My Valley is a classic coming-of-age story where a child learns about the conflicts in an adult society. In the case of Cwm Rhondda, the conflicts are working-class conflicts between the mine owners and the imperiled workers who put their lives on the line for so few schillings as to make it worthwhile. As well, Huw learns that a lie can be as damaging as the truth (through witnessing the downfall of his sister’s relationship) and the difference between love and a crush (he has a thing for his oldest brother’s wife, Bronwyn). How Green Was My Valley has a sense of consequence to it that makes the work endure well beyond its timeframe. The world is constantly changing and children will always have moments when they are disillusioned or they encounter tragedies. As such, How Green Was My Valley is a very typical coming of age story.

What makes it work is that the film has so many important elements in it that make it timeless. While the music is very specific to Wales, the sense of idolization of the parents (Huw risks his life for his mother), the first crush, and the sense of loss when the truth does not win out the day are universal. There are problems with the narrative technique in that Huw provides a voice-over of the film, yet we see things that he cannot possibly see. So, for example, while he and his mother are recuperating, he is downstairs and she is above and they use sticks to communicate (he beats on the ceiling, she taps on the floor) and we see her upstairs knocking on the floor. More problematic are moments in the final scenes of the film where the audience views events from an outside perspective when Huw is imperiled. This makes for actually a reduction of dramatic sense (i.e. we would feel more of Huw’s peril if we were in the mining accident with him).

Even more problematic is some of the acting, ironically (for me, anyway, as I am not usually fond of performances by young people in classic cinema) coming from some of the older cast. While Walter Pidgeon (Gruffyd) and Maureen O’Hara (Angharad) have great on-screen chemistry and young Roddy McDowell (Huw) holds his own in scenes with Pidgeon, Donald Crisp (Huw’s father) is played remarkably stiffly. Crisp has a very formal sense of body language through much of the movie and this is distracting, especially when Huw describes such things as his father’s fairly fun view on spending money. Also problematic is the moment when Crisp needs to be still, he is not, so the ending of the film is more implied than it is obvious.

As well, most of Huw’s older brothers become lumped together as the focus outside Ivor being married and the conflict at the mine has to do with Huw’s relationships with his parents, Gruffyd and Bronwyn. As a result, none of Huw’s other brothers truly shine and the performances by the actors playing them never click the way Patric Knowles’s Ivor does.

On DVD, How Green Was My Valley has been remastered to look surprisingly good. The film includes an audio commentary featuring a historian and actress Anna Lee Nathan (Bronwyn) and despite Lee not having a huge part in the film, she has some intriguing insights into the filming of the movie. There is an AMC program on How Green Was My Valley which is interesting for the fact that is has a lot of information not included in the commentary track. As well, there are pictures and the original trailer for the film on the DVD. Film buffs have a lot to enjoy here.

It is worth noting that even in black and white, How Green Was My Valley looks beautiful and whatever limitations the film has, they are easily overcome by the successful way the film portrays a universal story that has a flavor contemporary cinema lacks. There is a sense of innocence – even though the opening lines imply that innocence is lost already – that How Green Was My Valley systematically dismantles, but the fact that it begins with such a state makes it noteworthy and enjoyable to watch.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]

For other dramas with a modernist feel, please visit my reviews of:
Big Fish
The Untouchables


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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