Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com.  For those just joining us I'm watching as many Best Picture nominees from the last 92 years as I can before this year's Oscars, and telling you all what I think of them.

Today's film is Mrs. Miniver, a wartime drama released in 1942, as World War II was raging on.  Considered a textbook Hollywood film but set in Britain and rife with overtones of British mettle and pride, Mrs. Miniver was and is regarded as an exceedingly well-made propaganda film that helped American audiences identify with our overseas allies at the height of the war.  The action centers around an upper-middle class suburban family at the outset of German aggression in Europe, depicting in pretty unforgiving detail for the time how the lives of everyday Brits were affected by these events.  

The title character Kay Miniver, played by Greer Garson (for which she won a well-deserved Oscar), is an affable, rather carefree housewife, happily married to a successful architect.  The couple have two young children and one in college, and the family's home life is thrown into turmoil as the Germans begin air raiding England and France.  The eldest son Vin gets romantically involved with Carol, the granddaughter of a neighboring rich widow, and also decides to join the Royal Air Force to help in the war effort.  This creates much concern within the family, but even moreso with Carol's grandmother, who lost her husband to battle and doesn't want to see her granddaughter suffer the same fate.  But ultimately the young couple marries, knowing that there's a good chance they won't have a lot of time together.  Another subplot involves Carol's grandmother and her entry in the annual flower show, where she's won first prize several years in a row but this year has competition from the train station manager Mr. James Ballard (Hey, that's my dad's name!), played by Henry Travers of It's a Wonderful Life fame.  
The first half of the film is mostly a lighthearted domestic drama, as Mrs. Miniver and her husband make frivolous purchases they're reluctant to tell each other about, Vin clashes with Carol over politics, Carol's grandmother frets over her flower show streak ending, etc.  I found the setup a little mundane as these characters and their trivial everyday worries are introduced.  But once the war begins the film picks up, hammering home the idea that no one in Britain is safe from its effects.  A few harrowing highlights are a wounded German soldier holding Kay hostage in her own house as he raids their kitchen, an especially traumatic sequence where the family must take refuge in their bomb shelter as the village is being bombarded, and a third-act scene where Kay and Carol flee the flower show in a car to escape more air strikes.  These sequences are quite powerful and convey this strong central female character and her family attempting to hold things together during the worst of times.  

One thing that struck me as I watched Mrs. Miniver is the fact that when it was made no one knew how the war would end.  It must have been a pretty terrifying proposition to watch a wartime movie as the world was still going through the war, not knowing whether Germany would succeed in its quest for world domination or whether the Allies would hold the line.  Viewing the film with that in mind lends it a great sense of urgency, and it's easy to see why 1942 audiences were so viscerally swept up.  In addition to being the top-grossing movie of the year, Mrs. Miniver garnered an astounding eleven total Oscar nods, winning six - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright won for her role as Carol, but her costar May Whitty was also nominated for the grandmother), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography - Black & White, and of course Best Actress.

Mrs. Miniver is certainly an unusual take on the war film, showing not the battlefield but the upheaval of everyday citizens and the importance of everyone doing their part.  In its screenplay I can see the likely influence over films like Signs, another intimate, character-driven variation on the invasion picture.  As in that film, we hardly ever see the enemy - the wounded German who invades the Miniver house is the only member of the German forces we're ever shown.  But their presence in the sky is always hinted at, an ever-looming threat to this idyllic London suburb.  In the end the film reminds us that, at our lowest point, we have to be able to count on each other or all is lost.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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