By Craig Leask
For Mother’s Day I have chosen Mrs. Miniver, as the film that not only acknowledges the strength, endurance and fierce protectiveness found in most mothers, but the film also masterfully celebrates them.
Mrs. Miniver was the right film at the right time. Based upon the 1940 Jan Struther novel of the same name, with production commencing soon after the book’s release, the timely story depicts the effects of World War II on an ordinary British middle-class housewife and her family. There have been many movies produced which show the horrors of war: – Patton (1970), The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957) and Dunkirk (2017) – and soldiers returning home – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and the Vietnam War drama Coming Home (1978). Few have been as successful in depicting the effects of war on one’s home country, particularly a film which identifies the strength found in most mothers when they need to protect their families against the insurmountable odds of a war that was not of their making.
Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is a middle-aged English wife and mother whose kindness, strength and positive spirit represent the “every woman” persona across England during the difficult days of WWII. This is what Mrs. Miniver is really about: the love and devotion of ordinary people as they try to maintain some normalcy in their lives during wartime. Mrs. Miniver must guide her family through the terrors of war while staying positive for her youngest children, as well as conceal her worries of those family members actively fighting for their country. She represents an entire country of women who worked in factories, grew crops and generally allowed the nation to continue operating while the men went to battle. She is a strong character and in portraying her, Garson’s performance won her an Academy Award.
There are two scenes in the film which stand out and represent Mrs. Miniver’s strength and masked vulnerability. The first involves her son Vin (Richard Ney) who is suddenly recalled back into service from his leave. As he ascends the stairs to pack, his mother and his fiancée (Teresa Wright) are left in the room, their backs to the camera, saying nothing. The viewer can see through the space between them what they are seeing – the empty staircase. Even though he has yet to leave the house, both women are already missing him and worried about his safety as he prepares to return to war. The image is a simple, but powerful display of the women’s strength in their silence.
Another more powerful scene has the family collected in their air raid shelter while their town is being bombed. The claustrophobia of the small, dark shelter coupled with the staunch bravery and dignity of the family is brilliantly caught on film by director William Wyler. Mrs. Miniver’s fear blatantly displayed in her facial expression, yet not verbalized. The expression immediately concealed when her sleeping children are awoken by sound of the increasingly terrifying bombardment from above. Soon the fear builds to an unbearable climax and the family desperately clings to one another.
As the war was still raging when the film was completed and released, the ending could not be the anticipated happy one of similar movies of the time period. The movie is thought provoking, stirring and demonstrates the infallible strength and determination of the Allies women.
Winston Churchill famously stated Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions” – an interesting statement for the 1940’s as the film’s leads were all female and the story is about their strength, not the men’s, during the war.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.