Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean & Ronald Neame
Based on a Play by: Noel Coward
Starring: Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, John Mills, Stanley Holloway
Producer: Noel Coward
Running Time: 110 min
BBFC Certificate: U
David Lean is one of Britain’s most well respected directors, responsible for such undisputed classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Great Expectations to name a few. Starting his career as an editor, he got into directing through working with the renowned playwright and actor (among other talents) Noel Coward on four films, In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter and this, his first solo directorial credit, This Happy Breed (In Which We Serve came first, but was co-directed with Coward).
This 1944 film is being re-released at a perfect time with the Queen’s Jubilee fresh in our minds as it’s full of unabashed patriotism and is a film that openly celebrates ‘true Britishness’. Made at the height of the Second World War, This Happy Breed is a clear attempt to drum up a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude on our green shores by telling the story of a supposedly average family, the Gibbons’. The film begins just after the end of the First World War and spans the trials and tribulations of a married couple (Robert Newton & Celia Johnson), their three children and their mother and spinster sister that live with them all the way up to the eve of the following war in 1939. The first half is all peaches and cream with friends being made, romances blossoming etc. but the second half puts many hardships onto the family which they battle through with poise and strength.
Despite this being Lean’s first true feature as director, he delivers a confident and solid effort straight out of the gate. Taking a potentially stagey play script that is mainly set indoors, Lean takes every opportunity to open things up. In the few exterior scenes he makes sure they are as extravagant as possible without losing the sense of ‘realism’ Coward wanted by filling his frames with carnivals and parades full of colour and vibrancy. With the help of cinematographer Ronald Neame, Lean also adds a fair amount of camera movement and crane work mixed with some nicely composed shots and colourful production design without ever looking too slick or stylised.
Coward’s writing impresses too, with plenty of his finely crafted witticisms cutting through the fairly bog-standard story. Their attempts to show an ‘ordinary’ family aren’t all that successful though. Naturalism hadn’t quite been mastered yet in British cinema. This brings one of my main criticisms of the film. The family drama, although moving at times, is rather soapy and not quite gripping enough to sustain its fairly lengthy running time. The first half in particular drags its heels, with a crescendo of family feuds in the middle bringing things back from the brink. A beautiful moment near the two-third mark works best though when the husband and wife receive some horrific news. Instead of dwelling on the potential melodrama, the camera slowly pans across an empty room with ironically jaunty swing music playing in the background.
Politics are regularly brought up in the film on top of the family dynamics and aren’t dwelled on enough to bog the story down, but equally aren’t subtle enough to fully settle either and didn’t add much for me. I guess coming at a time of war it was difficult for a mainstream film to be too questioning or controversial when it came to politics. When it comes to sexual politics the film stands up though with the female characters as strong and well drawn as their male counterpoints, if not more so.
Watching This Happy Breed almost 70 years on, the film has dated in its “tally ho” view of ‘everyday’ Britain, but in a loveable, cosy sort of way. It lacks a certain edge to ever be considered a true classic as many of Lean’s other works are, but remains a pleasant and very well made film that is still largely enjoyable and occasionally moving.
This Happy Breed is released on Blu-Ray on June 18th by Network Releasing. This brand new digital restoration looks incredible, with the beautifully colourful cinematography looking vivid once more and any scratches or marks gone forever.
The set is filled with goodies too. As well as the usual trailers and an extensive stills gallery you get a restoration comparison which shows how much of an improvement has been made to the picture. On an accompanying DVD you get various press material to look through, but the main extra is an epic “South Bank Show” feature on David Lean. Unfortunately this wasn’t on my screener, but I vaguely remember watching this on TV in the past and thinking highly of it. Reviews I’ve seen elsewhere certainly do, so it should make this a worthy package for fans of the director.