Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 71: Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Revisiting this film three or four years after I first viewed it (for research on Ealing Studios’ colour films) I still think it is unjustly dismissed within many studies of Ealing’s productions: Charles Barr, for example, described it as ‘an expensive, ponderous and loss-making period spectacle.’ (Barr 1980: 188). The film’s financial failure is writ large in most accounts, it has an apparent disinterest in obvious national interests (an opulent period drama at a time when Britain was suffering through post-war rationing, occasional references to the history of the British royal family, Technicolor in an age of black-and-white), and its creative approach challenges the myth of Ealing’s monolithic interest only in realism and restraint. Yet strip those blinkers from any assessment of the film and it is revealed as an unusual and spectacle-laden effort, revelling in the unusual subject matter, promoting a beautiful colour palette, and with a strong narrative through-line that often privileges its strong female characters.

The story of love and forbidden sexuality in 17th century Hanover, the film follows Princess Sophie-Dorothea (Joan Greenwood), whose political marriage to repellent Prince George Louis (Peter Bull) is an attempt to unite regional interests and prepare a successor to the English throne. Given her husband’s inattention and unfaithful behaviour, Dorothea finds herself attracted to Swedish prince Konigsmark (Stewart Granger), struggles to resist him (not wanting to sink to the dubious morals of the Hanover royals), but eventually pursues him, to suitably tragic ends.

Critical opinion was divided on the film: the Daily Graphic encapsulated many reviewers when it noted ‘the film leans towards the theatrical [rather than the] preferred... more realistic treatment’ – standing in opposition to the documentary realist tradition Ealing had helped develop during wartime. Although Michael Balcon regularly claimed the production was his own decision – part of his post-war desire for Ealing to explore new genres, to avoid the ‘formation flying’ of contemporary production – evidence suggests it was a project thrust on Ealing by Rank, which was eager to target the lucrative American market. It definitely sits uncertainly within Ealing’s canon, but it is also a film that fits within Ealing’s post-war desire to expand creatively, and one that offers several strong female roles in Countess Platen (Flora Robson), Dorothea, and the politically cunning ruler, Electress Sophia (Francoise Rosay), a trend established in films such as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and Frieda (1947).

Given Ealing’s reputation, the studio did stress the research behind the film, an attention to detail that was intended to present ‘realistic colour’ to its historical subject matter. Production designer Michael Relph, costume designer Anthony Mendleson, and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe worked with director Basil Dearden and screenwriter Alexander Mackendrick to develop a composed film that drew from painterly techniques and more adventurous uses of colour technology. As my chapter on Ealing colour aesthetic in the forthcoming Ealing Revisited explores in more detail, Slocombe and Relph appear to have been the strongest voices here, with Slocombe’s expressive use of Technicolor one of the film’s more impressive virtues (and one that I would dearly love to see a properly restored 3-strip print of: the DVD print is good, but elements of the film suggest deeper and more vibrant colours were present in the original stock).

Slocombe’s colour credo was not ‘whether the hues are true to life but whether pleasing and dramatic use has been made of them’ and this approach is clear throughout: opening credits which foreground red and blue hues; blue-grey expressionist colouring and lighting in the shadowy castle of Ahlden, the night-time rooftops of Hanover and the final sword-fight in the castle; the bright sunny location of Celle; or the auburn tresses of Joan Greenwood. Yet the true centrepiece of the film’s colour is the Hanover Fair, where a montage of bold colour spectacle represents both the chaos of the fair and Dorothea’s psychological state. This is a bravura sequence where editing, colour design, framing and narrative pull together into a wordless succession of images that expand the film’s creative vision. Indeed, while the critics could not agree on the film’s values, many agreed with the Daily Worker which had ‘seldom seen Technicolor used to such superb effect.’

None of this is to claim the film is perfect: the performances are solid, although Granger is a little stiff in an under-written role and Peter Bull’s amusing comic turn as George Louis doesn’t get much screen time. It is the women who dominate and linger in the memory: Rosay’s stern unyielding matriarch; Robson’s cunning countess, and Greenwood’s unhappy princess. Some scenes remain stilted, particularly in the early part of the film, but it picks up pace as the narrative speeds towards its tragedy, and the colour photography remains fascinating throughout.

[Saraband for Dead Lovers is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we stick with Ealing period drama and explore The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)...


  1. I have not seen, or even heard, of this film, and my association with Ealing is with the Alec Guinness comedies of the '50s and the studio's more contemporary look at British life (such as Passport to Pimlico). Joan Greenwood is a favorite of mine, but again, I tend to associate her with a kind of comic femme-fatale persona in Ealing films, so this movie does sound quite different for an Ealing product. It also sounds, given its historical subject matter, as if it was hitching on the bandwagon of such late-40s American historical Technicolor dramas as Forever Amber or Captain From Castile. But your post definitely makes me want to check this film out - thanks!

  2. Glad to have introduced you to it - it isn't perfect by any means, but I find it fascinating and it has some great performances and cinematography.

    Given only a third of Ealing's films were really comedies, one of the aims of this blog was to see (and hopefully enjoy) all the other films they made, across so many different genres.