Back in the day, old Jack’s Grandpa – a soft sod – waxed lyrical about Robert Donat. He of The 39 Steps (1935), The Citadel (1938) and the incomparably brilliant Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). Grandpa Gus loved the soft, restrained characters put out by Donat, a man beleaguered by life-reducing asthma. And he was right to. If there’s a quiet benefit to all these empty afternoons, it is the black and white movies that pop up on the telly – or those brought by young Steve who recognises I spend much of my time reaching back to days in Grandpa Gus’s front room, sharing buns and tea, and listening to his fascinations.
Robert Donat had a glorious voice, a terrific theatre career, yet made only twenty films despite pleas from studios here and in the States. His asthma was a cruel test of character for a man born to project the tight emotions of the day. It took him out of movies for the three years before this one. In the end, it killed him. We should be grateful for – and rather more attentive to – the thirty or so hours we get to spend with him.
And so old Jack sat down last Sunday to watch Lease of Life. I’d been pondering on Grandpa Gus, a religious man of the old faith, so this gentle tale of a country vicar in his rural parsonage brought a smile. I would hope it’d do the same for you.
Donat is William Thorne, late middle-aged, poor, with a testing wife and ferocious and ferociously talented daughter. They are at that ghastly point of realising the girl’s potential can only be fostered by a London music school, with all the costs of tutoring, accommodation and food that demands. And they cannot afford it. Yikes.
Kay Walsh flickers between stern, supportive and terrifying as Vera, the vicar’s wife. Determined to help her daughter, the crux of the story is that she goes too far, not realising that her daughter (the properly frightening Adrienne Corri as Susan) doesn’t need her any more. Vera looks hard work for the vicar, but he deals with it by patronising her in a manner so gentle he must have hypnotised her into marriage.
Corri is supposedly quite young. The stylings of 1954 make her look 35 at least, and she is flirting her way into a relationship with suave, tiresomely critical and ‘tirribly Inglish’ Denholm Elliott. So that’s not going to work out. Her fingerwork on the piano is weirdly mesmerising, the red hair covering her double’s face as she bangs and crashes up and down the keyboard like a pro. Corri gives off realistic and – in the end – it’s that which saves the character from being a complete cypher.
Donat, echoing old Mr Chips, has an innocent, admirable nature. For one scene, and pretty much one scene only, the film disturbs that by telling him he’s dying. The Vicar has a heart disease that’ll kill him inside a year. There are no histrionics. Indeed, the film barely acknowledges the news in the text. Rather, Donat and the subtext work to show off a brief new lease of life that could possibly get the cash together to help his daughter on all-new charisma alone. He is invited to give the sermon at a major, monied school. What happens is a shock to all (in the astonishingly tame sense of the 1950s, but let it go): he talks of living life, of breaking rules, of getting on with living. For a few minutes, we are gifted the Robert Donat of the stage and he is powerful, a little crazed, deeply moral and some kind of wonderful.
Then the film goes tits up as it forgets that Donat should now be free of the strictures of his nature. The vicar’s wife, tempted by her husband’s duty to hold cash for a dead parishioner, ‘borrows’ £100 of it to help their daughter. Various bits of moral and social tap-dancing happen that compromise the vicar and the film’s charm. The Reverend Mr Thorne, a hit with the seedier newspapers following his daring sermon, succumbs to the need to protect his wife and…wait for it…writes a column! For £100. Mrs Thorne is tangibly grateful. The vicar is not obviously kicking himself for not doing this in the first place. Or, indeed, telling her to get a bloody job. Deus ex tabloidia and a certain emptiness reign.
A quiet review for a quiet film. This is restful and lovely. The plot is an intrusion. The expectation of death the lightest of motivators. It is quite telling to watch a film from so long ago where the lives of a middle-aged couple are not so much about the pain of lost youth, rather the business of getting on with things. Age is a happenstance not a theme.
Catch it on the box some afternoon or get your kid to find it on the internet. Or – if you’re with me – make room for the ghost of Grandpa Gus. I could feel him smiling throughout.