Actress Files: Sarah Miles
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1970 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for Women in Love)
Why I Waited: Try as I might, I don't always have 206 free minutes in a row.
The Performance: I know David Lean took the public lambasting of Ryan's Daughter very hard and only barely got over it to make one more movie, 14 years later, before he died. I don't see any need to further pillory a movie that has already been so roundly rebuked, but then the bashful gentleness of a lot of the reviews that greeted the DVD release in 2006 don't seem like the right way to go, either. Let's just say that, give or take a few scenes of mutual but benign incomprehension between Sarah Miles as a young Irish lass and Robert Mitchum as the much older schoolteacher she convinces to marry her, and aside from about 10 or 15 scattered minutes of prickly character moments or atypically enigmatic montage, the rest of Ryan's Daughter's three and a half hours are just as preternaturally weightless as you've heard. Freddie Young has photographed the movie in super widescreen for postcard prettiness, disclosing a set of priorities that are about as wrong as they could be for the material, which itself requires an exceptionally nimble execution so as to dissipate the scent of very stale air. In short: a timid young wife seeks an older, unthreateningly asexual husband but later discovers the appetites of her body, very inconveniently whetted by a soldier of the British Army who's been called in to quell the Irish discontent.
Miles is the wife, and the reason I stress the tremendous shortcomings of the film is that, at the basic stylistic level, she's all but barred from making an impact. The opening movements of the film clearly mean to present her as a sort of blooming flower, but while I appreciate that a certain degree of clichéd dollishness is avoided, she's somehow done all her wardrobe shopping in Outer Dowdsville: beige sweater down past her butt, shapeless gray tent of an ankle-length skirt, wide-brimmed hat, and a wig that looks like horse-tail. Strolling alone on clifftop and seashore with her parasol, Miles might be registering any number of nuances on her face, but we'd never know, which is partly down to that hat, but more because Lean forfends our getting very close to hernot that the actress looks especially inspired in such close-ups and two-shots as are doled out to her.
I'd call it a fair expectation that, knowing you are starring for David Lean at the most aggressive stage of his encroaching ailment, Elephantiasis of the Travelogue, you might need to devise a more physical rendering of the character, to stand any chance against the Super Panavision vistas in which you are sunk. "But render what character?" Miles may surely have asked, and who could blame her? The script supplies so little, and an externalized portrait of her vague arc defies easy imagining. In direct proportion to his wider and wider shots, Lean seemed to grow more and more taken with the idea of opaque characterizations. If his Lawrence is at last a sphinx, his Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy wastes a great name on being, from the get-go, a lovin' cipher. Lots of dewy, tentative, or stupefied glances, a bit of trembling lip. But what's behind it all? As though to give Miles even less to play with, or against, Ryan's Daughter rather pointedly eschews any dialogue at all for long periods, and as her English innamorato, Lean cast sullen pretty boy Christopher Jones, so disastrous an actor that all of his dialogue required redubbing. These gratuitous ordeals come together in a long, wordless sequence of D.H. Lawrence-style seduction between Miles and Jones in a forest of heather and jade, and if the dewy, soft-focus longueurs of this interlude manage to be less entirely cheesy than they could be, they do so without aiding Miles in any real way. Nor does she offer any memorable stamp of her own.
Personalizing stamps are a recurring problem for this actress: I have seen her now in Antonioni's Blowup; John Boorman's Hope and Glory, a generous Best Picture nominee in 1987; and Ryan's Daughter. In the former, I recall her peering silently at David Hemmings from her kitchen floor while she's in the midst of a serene rut with another man, and that's it. From the Boorman, nothing. None of these pictures have styled themselves as showcases for their casts, and if Miles doesn't seize the camera of her own electric accord the way Vanessa Redgrave does in Blowup, she cannot quite be blamed for that, or for the fact that two of her better-regarded performances, in Lady Caroline Lamb and the Palme-winning The Hireling, are more or less elusive these days. I hear that she achieves a carnal vitality in Joseph Losey's The Servant, and though Ryan's Daughter is too roseate in conception to profit from such a knack, it's true that when you do see Miles elevating her scenes, they tend to be ones where some force of sexuality is privileged. Rosy giggles, wonderfully, upon being told that virginal men fear the prospect of initiation and of their own potential failings as much as women do. (I also like her short, sincere, but meaningful laugh near the endthe end!of the movie when her father promises to write letters to her; the plain fact that he won't, even if he momentarily intends to, amuses her.) Rosy doesn't set out to hurt anyone, and if Mitchum's humble, almost diffident schoolteacher showed any erotic confidence, or any interest in her libido, she'd never have strayed. As it is, she enjoys watching him work in the yard without his shirt, and looks surprised but unembarrassed at such enjoyment. When she asks him to keep the shirt off inside, he huffily demurs, obviously if implicitly chiding her for her nascent lustiness, and Miles shows us well that Rosy is genuinely flustered and confused.
She isn't failing, then, to make studied decisions about her character, and she appears to intend a welcome liveliness for Rosy, inward and outward, that never resolves itself. The thinness of the plotting and the pristine, listless emptiness of the lensing are barely superable hurdles... but why do four hours pass without her sticking much to the screen, and why did three such different directors all fail to get any charge from her? Lean and Antonioni treat hers as the kind of spectacular face that rewards any peer of the camera, but that confidence seems misplaced. She has the open, curving face and the aqua gaze of Samantha Morton, but she lacks Morton's moonglow quality; Miles doesn't seem to have any pores, much less an inner radiance, and she gives rather frozen poses of thought rather than, as Morton does, fine-grained transmissions of how thought fluctuates and questions itself. There's also a bit of Susannah York in Miles, but she's less striking, and minus the perverse charge. I await screening the picture that really makes the case for her. In the meantime, it's a pity to see her nominated for a picture that starts her so far behind that it's no mystery when she never fully catches up. For visible signs of effort, she might deserve a second star, but the lasting impression is just too close to zero.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 34 to Go