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Fans of Robert Donat will not want to miss this one. As I watched the film, with its strong and unflinching view of daily life in which the Church structures every act in every household, I kept thinking of Agatha Christie and her conception of Miss Marple's detection of crime in an English village. In Donat's parsonage, there are no murders, but there are small transgressions, which, in the large scheme of things, may matter little, but under the microscope of vicarage life, mean as much as a daughter's music career hinging on 20£s being too little.
Donat's character is reminiscent of Mr. Fred Rogers, of television fame, who just passed away. As with Mr. Rogers, his view of life is one of gentle humor and of quiet strength, always facing up to the challenge that each individual has in life when he is placed on this earth. The screen writer Eric Ambler is unknown to me, but his view of daily life in 1950's England, while a decade away from the war, was still one of struggle with a slightly grim, but not cheerless, overcast. The women are all strong, and, while the men not all good-looking, are a tad on the shrill and demanding side. We wonder if Donat's parson could survive without Kay Walsh's, and then the daughter Adrienne Corri's, constant ministrations, verbal and actual. The other women in the village also seem to be like harpies, which makes one wonder about the women in Ambler's life.
Adrienne Corri, unless I am mistaken, actually does play the piano in the film-- the big Romantic composers into which she pours her heart as an escape from the potentially stifling life in Hinton. We see her as a younger beauty in Jean Renoir's classic "The River," which she made just four years earlier. Her beau in the film is the young Denholm Elliott, who in a long and distinguished career, plays, here, a rather aggressive and unsympathetic, though professionally encouraging to Adrienne, church organist.
The movie is about character, and the performances remind us that ordinary life in a small English town revolved around the structure that religious life gave it, and that both pleasure and pain hinged on the degree of conformity that one presented to the outside world. Kay Walsh's character, both heroic and petty, also reminds us of how many vicar's wives have been sacrificed in real life to the altar of their husband's career and to fulfillig the lives of their children, through which they lived vicariously, as Mrs. Thorne through her daughter's musical talent.
This film was an Ealing Film Studio production, and like other Ealing products, bears an honesty and respect for the dignity of ordinary people in the telling of its story, regardless of the director. Is this saying too much for a movie company, or is it the English character? One has only to consider the other Ealing Studio films which Turner Movie Classics has made available from time to time, "The Magic Box" (another Donat classic), "Shiralee" (an early Peter Finch), as well as a number of great comedies, like "The Wrong Box," "Man in the White Suit" (an Alec Guinnes classic), and others, that poke fun at human nature and its foibles with a sense of manic pleasure, but never losing sight of gentle humanity.
"Lease of Life" was apparently the second to the last film that Donat made before he succumbed to chronic asthma, a tragedy as that ailment today can be so easily controlled. His last film "Inn of the Sixth Happiness" was ironically made for Hollywood, which he tended to avoid. In it he plays a dignified mandarin, both looking and speaking the part -- the only actor, in my experience, to have mastered the Chinese language in a western film.
For "Lease of Life" four**** out of five***** for its rarity.
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