Author: imogensara_smith from New York City
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I got home from a screening of THE FAN I sat down to re-read "Lady Windermere's Fan," and came to the conclusion that the film is significantly better than the play. I don't think this opinion is as heretical as it sounds. Wilde's literary reputation rests largely on his exquisite aphorisms and his one perfect work, "The Importance of Being Earnest," my nominee for the funniest play ever written. Before he hit his stride with "Earnest," Wilde's plays were an awkward hybrid of sophisticated comedy and stilted melodrama, with creaky plots that heavy-handedly flogged their worthy message of tolerance. There is always a woman with a past, an acidulous dandy, a shameful secret, and a self-righteous young man or woman who has to come to terms with that secret.
Otto Preminger seems like a poor choice to interpret Wilde. He did not have a light touch, and anyone expecting sly, frothy comedy from THE FAN will be disappointed. (Watch the Lubitsch silent version instead.) Preminger downplays the comedy-of-manners aspect without eliminating or destroying it, but he succeeds in translating the cardboard melodrama into something subtle, complex and moving. Preminger's gift was for creating ensembles in shades of gray, with no black villains or white heroes. Here the whole cast is tamped-down and naturalistic: there is no mannered camp about the comedy and no teeth-marks on the scenery after the dramatic peaks.
The first half of the film is original, setting up the situation that the play lays in our laps in its first scene. To begin with there is a framing device set in contemporary post-war London, where the octogenarian Mrs. Erlynn (Madeleine Carroll) discovers the fan at an auction of unclaimed property from bombed buildings. In order to reclaim her property she has to prove ownership, so she tracks down Lord Darlington (George Sanders), now a doddering "museum piece" living in a remnant of his former home. We learn that Lord and Lady Windermere were killed in the Blitz; that the two worldly, ambiguous characters have survived the pure couple feels appropriate to a changed world. The frame gives the costume-drama portion a wistful edge; instead of the usual Hollywood gloss, here the past gleams through nostalgia like a flower buried in a paperweight.
The flashback unfolds as Mrs. Erlynn relates her story to the reluctant and skeptical Lord Darlington. George Sanders might seem like almost too obvious a choice to play this role. Some of the dialogue ("As a wicked man I am a complete failure. In fact, there are some people who say I have never done anything really wrong in my life. Of course, they only say it behind my back") might have been written for that inimitable dry-sherry voice, at once rich, acid and smooth. But Sanders, like the rest of the cast, does not lean on wit, delivering the bon mots casually, almost under his breath. Instead, he comes as close as I've ever seen him to suggesting raw feeling behind the polished facade of disdainful boredom. As Lady Windermere, delicate Jeanne Crain turns the tiresomely shrill, uncompromising puritan of the play into a fresh, gentle innocent, a young woman of innate but untested fineness. It's like watching a paper doll come to life.
But this is Madeleine Carroll's movie. All too often relegated to decorative roles, here she gives a nuanced performance as a complicated woman: flirtatious, scheming, unscrupulous, but ultimately brave and compassionate; proud but stricken with inconsolable regret. She manages the mother-love scenes with compelling emotion, never sliding into sentimentality. As a young woman Mrs. Erlynn left her husband and child for another man, breaking her husband's heart. In middle age, still relying on youthful allure and trailing a scandalous reputation, she returns to London. She is not above blackmailing her daughter's wealthy husband, Lord Windermere, who gives her large sums of money to spare his wife from learning the truth about her idealized mother, whom she believes is dead. Gossip turns this transaction into an affair, and Lady Windermere is devastated when she believes her handsome young husband has betrayed her.
Interestingly, the film shows Lord W. initially attracted by Mrs. Erlynn, suggesting he is no plaster saint. But he hardly deserves the agony of having to choose between losing his wife's trust or destroying her illusions about her mother. Meanwhile, Lord Darlington seizes on the alleged infidelity to declare his love for Lady W. and beg her to leave her husband for him. Would he really have devoted his life to her, or would he have abandoned her after a year, as Mrs. Erlynn suspects? We're never sure, but we believe that he still regrets losing her. This must be one of the few cases in which the movie version of a literary work has a less happy ending than the original. The elimination of Mrs. Erlynn's last-minute marriage suits the darker, sadder, more mature tone of the film—and since we see her in hale old age we know that she landed on her feet somehow. There is the faintest hint that she and Lord Darlington might make a December-December match, but it's not overplayed.
Few films have done a better job of hiding their stage origins; this one never feels static or talky, and the interpolated activities like a fencing match and a shopping trip feel natural and evoke an elegant lost world. THE FAN has more warmth and tenderness than many of Preminger's films, and if it doesn't belong with his very best, it certainly belongs with those, like DAISY KENYON, that deserve greater exposure and appreciation.
MikeBSG wrote:I liked the Swedish "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" more than the Hollywood version.
Maybe it was because I saw it first. However, I thought the Swedish actress brought more intensity to her role, and the Swedish actor, who played the journalist, brought a realism and sense of vulnerabilty to the role that Daniel Craig didn't have. I thought the Hollywood film simplified and smoothed out the plot too much and what excited me about the unwrapping/unpeeling of the mystery in the Swedish film was simply not there in the Hollywood version. The Hollywood film wasn't bad, but it was simply rather routine.
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