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A hilarious bittersweet satire about class divisions in Merry Old England – also, to some extent, a first draft of “Peter Pan”
on 23 June 2015
I always loved this film and recently I was delighted to see that albeit made 58 years ago, it didn't age one little bit. Below, more of my impressions, with some LIMITED SPOILERS.
Year of Grace 1905. William Crichton (Kenneth More) is the highly efficient butler in the London household of the Earl of Loam (Cecil Parker) and his family. The Earl considers himself a progressive and is against class divisions – Crichton on another hand is extremely class-conscious and conservative (in fact ultra-reactionary). The Earl has three grown up daughters and the oldest, Mary (Sally Ann Howes), is an incredible beauty – and as she is very conscious of this fact, the magnitude of her pride (arrogance) matches her looks. Soon after the film begins the Earl takes his family on a trip around the world on his yacht, but once they arrive to the South Seas the voyage is… interrupted… That will lead to quite a lot of interesting developments, which will also affect the class stratification – but for the sake of those who somehow managed to not know this story I will not say more.
Written by J.M. Barrie in 1902 the theatre piece "Admirable Crichton" was an immediate and ENORMOUS success and by making the author largely known, it certainly helped a lot his next major opus, "Peter Pan", which became an even bigger sensation two years later. This film is a very faithful adaptation of the piece and is mostly based on splendid, witty dialogs.
The casting is simply perfect and all actors did an amazing job. Kenneth More, who already completely stunned me by his incredible portrayal of Sir Douglas Bader in "Reach for the sky", plays here probably the second role of his life – he is simply PERFECT as Crichton. Veteran actor Cecil Parker is also great as Earl of Loam. Australian actress Diane Cilento, a girl with stunning legs who was going later to marry Sean Connery, plays marvellously the humble bumbling maid "Tweeny", a very endearing character. Another veteran of cinema and theatre, Martita Hunt, plays admirably Lady Brocklehurst – this last character is in fact a formidable female dragon rather than a woman…
This film however would not be as good as it is without Sally Ann Howes, who belonged to the small minority of women so beautiful, that it actually hurts the eyes when you try to look at them – and she also surely knew how to play. Her character in this film, Mary, allowed her to show her talent in such a way that she is even hotter than her looks. This incredibly proud princess, who later becomes… well, another kind of proud princess, is the kind of woman for the possession of whom it is worth to fight to the last drop of blood. Conquering such a princess must feel like ravishing Artemis – and it would probably be worth it even if one had to be then savaged by his own bloodhounds... As for the loss of such a woman, well, the grief and pain must be indescribable and insufferable... Without this character and Sally Ann Howes to play her, this film wouldn't be as good as it is.
This being a work of fiction, author had to take some liberties with reality, beginning with the portrayal of high born British people as hapless in difficult circumstances. I don’t really have the impression that such was really a case. British nobility, women and senior gentlemen very much included, proved to have real spine and darn tough hide in many a tough scrape, as well in colonial and overseas fighting (Indian Mutiny and Boxer Rebellion come immediately to mind) as during the terrible years of World War II. Young gentlemen were also quite roughly educated and treated in elite schools and me for one I somehow don’t really see Stalky, M’Turk or even bookish Beetle, once fully grown, being totally clueless in the wilderness... But this is a very minor point and of course without “licentia poetica” we would have no good stories at all.
As already mentioned earlier the success of this film resides mostly in the incredibly witty dialogs, in fact a permanent verbal fencing between all the characters, but there are also other elements, which make it into something much, much more than just a hilarious comedy about poorly assorted people thrown together into an unusual situation. "Admirable Crichton" contains also some more serious things, which make it into a bittersweet treat – and in the process transform it into something more than just harmless entertainment.
Both the piece and the film contain a reflexion on class divisions which is much deeper than one could expect from a comedy and it gives to the whole story a more serious, darker and sad element. The author was of course himself member of nobility and therefore his views were probably somehow biased, but I rather agree with his conclusion that classless society is not possible – sooner or later, even if you try to erase the differences by violence, some animals will always become more equal than others...
Then there is also the fascination with the idea of return to a simpler, less "civilized" life, as answer to a certain fatigue most of us, urban citizens living in highly developped societies, develop regularly. Civilized life is indeed comfortable and safe, but it contains also elements of stress which wear us down and this is why we all need a vacation from time to time - and sometimes the temptation is great to simply drop it all and not return... In reality, the civilization fatigue rarely survives the first toothache and virtually never the first death of a woman in childbirth far from a modern hospital - but it certainly guarantees the success of well written stories, such as "Robinson Crusoe" and "Mysterious Island" (both predating "Admirable Crichton") or "Tarzan of the Apes", which would be published only ten years later.
“Admirable Crichton” contains also many elements which J.M. Barrie continued to explore and developed later in “Peter Pan”. In both stories we have a group of characters who escape from the reality of life to spend a magic moment in an enchanted distant land, who remake there their life from scratch, live wonderful adventures and find happiness – but who cannot stay there indefinitely, because the real life calls them back. This return is painful and causes many tears to flow but it is nevertheless a good thing, because if the real world is a tough, even cruel place, it still has the advantage of being real... WARNING! WARNING! SOME SPOILERS AHEAD! This is why in both stories Wendy has to go her own way and the main hero must go back to Tinker Bell, the one girl who always faithfully loved him...
Bottom line, this is an EXCELLENT film, an absolutely marvellous classic of humour, serious reflexion and romance, with an amazing performance by Kenneth More and one incredibly beautiful actress portraying an impressively proud and fierce princess. TO SEE ABSOLUTELY! ENJOY!