Ask ten film historians about David Lean‘s Ryan’s Daughter, and they’ll all say it nearly killed Lean’s career. Slow and stately, over-indulged, visually pompous and old-schoolish to a fault. And that awful, Oscar-awarded village-idiot performance by John Mills. Magnificent Freddie Young cinematography, okay, but otherwise a sudden fall from grace. Not even close to the realm of Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter or Bridge on the River Kwai or even the respectably second-tier Dr. Zhivago or A Passage to India.
But you know what? Last night I began watching an HD Amazon stream of Ryan’s Daughter on my Sony 65″ 4K TV. I was sitting there like a 12 year-old and studying the Super Panavision 70 detail and just marvelling at how good it looks. The HD transfer was apparently taken from a 35mm source but it’s staggering all the same. It looks much better than what I recall from some half-forgotten viewing at some Massachusetts or Connecticut bijou (i.e., not a 70mm house).
And I realized that the trick to watching Ryan’s Daughter is to watch it on a monitor like mine, and to ignore as much of the story and the dialogue as possible (not to mention the bland British officer performance by Christopher Jones) and just focus on the visuals and the music.
That opening shot of the steep Irish cliffs near Dingle Bay, and that tiny little ant (i.e., Sarah Miles) running left to right as she approaches the edge…my God! And that footsteps-in-the-sand sequence with Robert Mitchum. 20th Century filmmaking rarely exceeded this level of immaculate care and visual eloquence.
Pauline Kael called Lean’s late-period shooting style “humorlessly meticulous [and lacking in] driving emotional energy,” and Time‘s Richard Schickel called Ryan’s Daughter “a piece of bullshit.” But it sure looks mesmerizing on a scene-to-scene basis.