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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #15: Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Terea Wright

There is no shortage of perspectives from which to tell a story about war. Most films tell war stories from the point of view of the soldiers, some from the point of view of politicians. William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver tells its story from the perspective of a community. Centering mostly on the Miniver family but extending to their friends and neighbours as well, the film examines the effects of war on the home front with all its inherent adventures, dramas, and losses.

The Miniver family is made up of Kay (Greer Garson) and her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and their children Vin (Richard Ney), Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Clare Sandars). They live in a house called “Starlings” just outside of London and enjoy the trappings of a comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle. Vin, home from university, meets Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), granddaughter of the village’s grand dame Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), with whom he has one of those relationships that start with clever sniping and evolve into love. They marry but then World War II breaks out and he joins the air force, where he is fortunately posted close to home.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family experiences their own adventures. Clem participates in the Dunkirk evacuation along with other locals who have boats, Kay is temporarily held hostage by a wounded German pilot, and the annual flower competition engrosses the village when the local station master, Ballard (Henry Travers), defeats Lady Beldon with his entry, named for Mrs. Miniver. Shortly after his win, however, Ballard is killed in an air raid which also claims the life of Carol and damages the local church, where a service is held for those the community has lost and the vicar delivers a sermon reaffirming the spirit of the people and the necessity of continuing the fight. “This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform,” he solemnly intones, “It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom.”

The story unfolds mostly as a series of vignettes, which is an effective way to tell this particular story as it provides a sense of open-endedness, of us simply looking in on a part of the community’s life, which will continue beyond the edges of the film. This is a story that feels intensely personal because it concerns itself so deeply with the day-to-day lives and relationships of these people. In many respects it captures that same feeling of Wyler’s next effort (also a Best Picture winner) The Best Years of Our Lives and that’s what helps it resonate so deeply. It’s about ordinary people trying to carry on with their lives in extraordinary circumstances, which is what makes it so engaging.

Garson won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs. Miniver (and married on-screen son Ney in 1943) and would reprise her role in the film’s sequel, 1950’s The Miniver Story. She delivers a solid performance, exuding the kind of quiet strength that makes it easy to understand how the community has sort of built itself around her. There’s no flash or histrionics, just a great actress playing a great character whose very ordinariness makes her so compelling.

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