"Maids When You're Young Never Wed an Old Man" is the title of a song by The Dubliners, advice that may have been helpful to Rosy, the titular character in David Lean's 1970 film Ryan's Daughter
. A loose adaptation of Madame Bovary
, the film moves the story to County Kerry, Ireland during World War I, injecting a plot relating to conflicts at the time between the Irish and British. The film falls short in both stories, lacking the psychological insight of Madame Bovary
and lacking the objectivity necessary to effectively tell the kind of war time story the film also endeavours to be. However, there are some incredible performances, effective characters, and of course stunning visuals.
Sarah Miles plays Rosy but despite being the title character she's far less central to the tale than the title character of Madame Bovary
. Partly this may be due to the difference in medium, the novel allowing the viewer into the character's head far more effectively. Though the shift in point of view is also due to her husband, called Charles in both stories, taking it. He's played with an effective melancholy, ruminating circumspection by Robert Mitchum, who deservedly gets top billing.
In the novel, no one seems to be aware of Emma Bovary's affairs for some time and Charles is shown as being blissfully ignorant of them. Mitchum's version of the character seems to know right at the start and his sad eyes draw us in. In addition to this, the fact that Rosy doesn't know he knows puts us more in Charles' shoes.
Although less time is spent focusing on the wife's imagination and desire for romantic adventure, there is something of this in the film, mainly expressed in a confrontation between Rosy and the village priest, Father Collins, played by Trevor Howard.
Something of Emma Bovary's subtle horror at messy, earthly life is also manifested in her subtle disgust for a mute village idiot played by John Mills, something which comes to a slightly less satisfying fruition than an analogous epiphany had by Emma in the novel.
You may have noticed none of the actors I've mentioned so far are Irish and indeed not one of the main cast is actually Irish, something that's particularly problematic for the film's odd, unreserved sympathy for the British.
The man Rosy cheats with, Doryan (Christopher Jones), is even in charge of the local British garrison. He and Rosy start making out almost immediately upon meeting, before she informs him she's married. Unlike Emma's two lovers, one young and idealistic and the other a cynical manipulator, we're invited to sympathise with Doryan's war trauma. He has a bad leg and frequent debilitating flashbacks to the trenches. Another British officer is also introduced sympathetically and this is contrasted with a village that seems to be almost entirely inhabited by a savage mob, ready to tear apart a scapegoat at a moment's notice, needing to be kept in line by the wrath of Father Collins.
Leo McKern plays Rosy's father, Tom Ryan, as an absolutely wretched coward. However, in one of the film's most visually impressive and apparently actually very dangerous to film scenes, Ryan is battered about by waves as he and the rest of the village haul weapons ashore for an Irish rebel named Tim O'Leary (Barry Foster) who of course repays the consideration of the town by kissing women without invitation and then trying to use them as human shields. This scene also takes the opportunity to shore up more sympathy for Doryan.