In 1857 Glasgow, a man was murdered by arsenic which led to the sensationalised trial of Madeleine Smith, his lover. Her trial concluded with the uniquely Scottish verdict "not proven", a conclusion the viewer may also reach from 1950's Madeleine, an adaptation of the story by director David Lean. Drenched in black shadows and shining surfaces, this fascinating film is more interested in the psychology of its central character than on whether or not she committed the crime.
Lean's wife at the time, Ann Todd, plays Madeleine, a young, unmarried woman of a wealthy, prestigious family. The film begins with her, her sisters, and her parents moving into an expensive terraced house in Glasgow and Madeleine claims a bedroom for herself and her youngest sister below street level. We soon see why as this enables her to make easy, clandestine meetings with her lover, a Frenchman named Emile L'Angelier (Ivan Desny).
She carries on with this affair even as her strict, class conscious father (Leslie Banks) arranges a suitable match for her with a kind gentleman named William (Norman Wooland). Madeleine promises Emile she will tell her father about him and marry him but for now she stalls, asking the amiable William not to tell her father that he had proposed marriage to her so that she wouldn't have to report that she'd turned the offer down.
Finally, at one late night meeting, Emile decides to force the issue and demands that Madeleine tell her father about him. This becomes the best scene in the film as Madeleine agrees and then Todd brings a series of changing expressions to her face that clearly show just how hard consciousness of what that means hits her for the first time. We see in her startled, and startling, reaction just how impossible it seems to her that the world where her father exists could ever connect with the one where Emile exists.
Lean had made it clear that Emile and Madeleine had a physical relationship. Earlier, alone on a hillside, the two overhear a country dance. Madeleine impulsively starts to dance and urges Emile to join her but he only stiffly participates, not knowing how to dance to the bagpipes. But she lies down anyway and waits for him--a cut to the lusty dancers indoors followed by a shot of Emile retrieving her forgotten shawl clearly enough communicates what had occurred in the interval. But it also shows that Madeleine's physical attraction to Emile is given priority over the lack of cultural and temperamental familiarity. It's sex she wants from him.
It's a relationship she'd entered instinctively when the opportunity arose and only too late does she consciously process the ramifications. And of course it turns out Emile won't accept elopement. He may really have affection for Madeleine but his own top priority is and always was her father's money and he's willing to use her letters as blackmail to get his way.
Lean cleverly avoids making it clear whether Madeleine deliberately poisons him or if some manner of accident occurs with arsenic in the kitchen. He does this without ever stepping away from her point of view so it's possible for the viewer to watch the film with either interpretation. Andre Morell appears as her defence council and makes plenty of very stirring and reasonable arguments as to why it couldn't be her. If she didn't want the letters found, surely she wouldn't have killed him without retrieving them--the timeline of her purchase of arsenic and his poisoning don't match up--the autopsy revealed the arsenic wasn't of the particular kind Madeleine was on record as purchasing for, she says, cosmetic use, believing arsenic to be good for her skin. But on the other hand, if she didn't kill him, who did?
But the film appropriately fixates more on the relationships that put Madeleine in this position. Murder obviously wasn't a useful solution but she was clearly in a bad, unfair situation. One might ask if the solution would be for a society to be more open about casual sex or if it would be healthier for people to be allowed to carry on private dalliances without fearing risk of exposure. Madeleine is available on The Criterion Channel.