Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Review: Carrie (1951)

First of all, this film is not an adaptation of the Stephen King horror classic of the same name--for one, it came before the publication of Stephen King's book (i'm pretty sure). It is, however, based on a novel that according to the dvd's back cover was considered controversial at the time of release (the film itself is tame for today's standards, but the themes are still significant).

I guess we all go into a film with some preconceived notions of what it'll be about. For me, the front cover--featuring a close-up of a man (Laurence Olivier) and a woman (Jennifer Jones) positioned close together--suggested that this was a straightforward romantic, costume drama. Somehow I never figured it would be quite as sad as it turned out to be. I don't know if you can place this film in the romance genre (though it has romantic elements). It's more the kind of film that challenges the idea that "love conquers all". While we often hear the affirmations that "love is all you need" (that one is courtesy of The Beatles) and that "money doesn't make the world go round", this film instead provokes us to further explore these (perhaps simplistic) ideas.

The setting of the film is something like turn of the century Chicago, where society is not quite so forgiving if you turn your head from your 'duties' (this all sounds so ambiguous, but let's see if I can elaborate). We enter the film with a young woman, Carrie, (Jennifer Jones-who even past the age of 30 still looks refreshingly youthful) who leaves home to venture out to make her living. Yet making that living proves difficult when she loses her job and somehow gets entangled in a sexual relationship with a well-off man (Eddie Albert). In this society sex before marriage is taboo and she soon finds herself ostracised from her neighbours. Wanting to get away from this relationship and find a more respectable living, Carrie finds her ideal in George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier in a great performance). As the story begins to turn more towards George, we find out that he is a wealthy man with a family, and in theory, he should be happy, but he's in a loveless marriage. When he becomes acquainted with Carrie, he finds within himself emotions that he thought were long ago extinguished, and you see through Olivier's expressions just how much this man wants to be freed by the trappings of his current life. However, society being what it was and still is, when George's cruel and self-absorbed wife (Miriam Hopkins) finds out about his relationship with Carrie, she refuses to divorce him (since divorce threatens her own reputation in society)--which leads to a chain of events that keep spiralling until we reach the point where George no longer has access to his money and he and Carrie find themselves in poverish circumstances (you'll have to watch it to believe the injustice of the situation).

All the hardships and eventual departing between the two lovers might raise the question: was love worth it in the end? Even when at the end of the film where George is seen at his physical and financial worst, he still feels grateful that he was given the opportunity to find love. This is somewhat easier to grasp when we think what his alternative would have been: remaining in a yes luxurious life, which in spite of all that money could buy, wouldn't have presented him with the love that he felt with Carrie. I think by showing what George went through and by how he felt in the end, the film displays acute awareness that there is no right or wrong answer on this subject. One can blame George's society for his downfall, or that George himself should have known better, or even could see Carrie as some femme-fatale (or maybe not), and maybe a combination of things contributed to the ways things turned, but in the end, what's done is done--and the film chronicles that journey and I believe it allows the audience to come to their own conclusions (albeit with sympathy for George's plight).

The film was directed by William Wyler (also the director of Roman Holiday, among other notable pictures), and he's somewhat known as the director who usually extracts formidable performances from his actors (often by issuing repeated takes, which has the affect of breaking down the actor's mannerisms, causing them to be more natural). Wyler was particularly good at helping Laurence Olivier, who he had worked with once before (on Wuthering Heights). Early in his film career, Olivier couldn't quite shake off his theatricality (he's considered just about the greatest theatre thespian, and I would have killed to see him on stage), but Wyler helped to adjust Olivier to the toned-down nature of films, and in Carrie, Olivier gives one of his most natural performances. I applaud his sinking into his character, even moderating his uppercrust British accent to sound more American (I read that he modelled his voice on that of Spencer Tracy's, and with that in mind as you watch the film, you can kind of hear the Tracy-ness of Olivier's voice). I'm pretty sure Olivier's performance here wasn't Oscar-nominated, but I think it deserved to be. His slow decline from a handsome and wealthy man with everything society holds up high to a poor, tired and much more aged man is quite convincing-in particular, his voice and his expressions convey so much. Jennifer Jones is very solid in her role, she transforms well from a poor, small town girl with much dignity in spite of her upbringing, to a wealthy, mature woman. I feel that the script doesn't quite allow us to delve as much into her character as Olivier, but Jones allows through her expressions to give us a better understanding of her character. Also, I've come to the conclusion that the film shifts from Jones to Olivier to show just how he has become dependent on her, after she was initially dependent on him - they shift roles (she goes from poor to rich, and he does the opposite) and this adds more to the sadness of the film and to the social commentary. Even as I think now, I find myself finding more potential layers of the film--this is quite a film to think about.

So overall I can say that Wyler's great directing (it's really hard to find a film of his that doesn't work), the wonderful script that gives so much to think about, and the all round performances make this a film that rises above the kind of fare that quickly leave your consciousness once the credits stop rolling. This film feels somewhat timeless and so long as society itself exists, the themes of the film remain relevant. And if that doesn't mean a thing, this film can work purely on the level of seeing Laurence Olivier delivering a great performance.

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