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Matrimony is an Agreeable State, is it Not? Marriage in Wartime British Cinema

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Between 1939 and 1947, the number of divorces in Britain rose from 9,970 to 24,847. In Summer of the latter year, Picturegoer magazine ran a piece on the way in which marriage was perceived in the country’s theatres at the time, refuting strong claims from figures as influential as the Archbishop of York that sensationalism on screens was partly to blame. “The sentimental and glamorous picture of marriage presented by the cinemas”, it was suggested, gave way only to dawning disillusionment in real life. While this may have been the case for commercial American productions that presented a much glamorised version of marriage, rebuked the magazine, it certainly didn’t apply to an evolving British filmic landscape that would often portray marriage through a critical lens. The following year, French critic and historian Catherine de la Roche would level a similar criticism, declaring herself disappointed at the lack of films exploring the “fundamental changes” and shifting dynamic between men and women. Fortunately, with hindsight and the entire BFI archive on our side, it is easy enough to construct an effective counter-case against such claims by picking out a handful of topical films that treat postwar marriage in a sensitive, realistic manner.

The chief target of de la Roche’s criticism was David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), which she stated “didn’t achieve complete realism, because there wasn’t any hint of the familiar events and anxieties” of the era in which it was set. This might be the case, but its portrayal of marriage was particularly strong and not at all rose-tinted. We know that Laura will always love Alec and that their potential future together would contain more warmth and happiness, but that doesn’t stop her from returning to her husband – nor does it stop the film from effectively rewarding such virtue. Laura’s fleeting, brief encounter with Alec is one of heightened emotion and intensity – something that Lean neatly juxtaposes against the slow, tedious nature of her married life and the domestic space. Consider also the careful manipulation of space and sound in the film, which is often used as a means to the same end. In one scene, Laura is perched on the edge of the sofa, her every movement weight down by guilt. Her husband sits across from her, listening to invasive, melodramatic music on the radio. Every inch of the room is invaded by the music until Laura’s level of discomfort reaches breaking point and she must reach out for the dial.

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Going back further still, Leslie Arliss’ The Man in Grey (1943) bathes the premise of wedlock in a much more institutional and traditional light, yet the image presented is just as hopeless. Considered the first of the “Gainsborough Melodramas”, it follows a young woman who marries a misanthropic lord, played by James Mason. Clearly, she is quite unprepared for the sad, lonely and bitter life that awaits her. In a telling scene of dawning realisation not long after the wedding, she turns to her newly-assumed maidservant for help: “Uh, matrimony…” she begins before suddenly faltering; “is, uh – is an agreeable state, is it not?” Arthur Crabtree’s They Were Sisters (1945), another Gainsborough picture but with a much more contemporary feel, also involved Mason but as a much more likable character – at least, this is how he appears initially. Once married he becomes manipulative and brutal, bullying his wife into submission and to the point of suicide – much to the despair of her two sisters. For its time, it was an unflinching look at marital abuse, and one that looks to posit several three different kinds of marriage alongside one another, presenting three siblings that are at similar levels of unhappiness.

Many films of the time looked to capture the effect of war on marriage, leaving in its wake a trail of fatherless children and husbandless wives. One such film was Sidney Gilliat’s Waterloo Road (1945), which told, in the realist style, of a working class soldier who returns home to confront a draft-dodger over advances towards his wife. The narrative structure is something like that of a western, with the righteous stalking the wicked in search of justice. Trains also play an important visual role here, just as they do in Brief Encounter, but there is an obvious class gap in the characters seen in each film. Another film that deals directly with war and wedlock is Alexander Korda’s Perfect Strangers (1945), which was released in the US under the more literal title of Vacation from Marriage. Korda’s work is very much a before-and-after piece that portrays the loss of a happy pre-war marriage and its replacement by disgruntled married life in a post-war climate. It stands on its own in this sense, described by Margaret Butler as “the only post-war film to deal directly with female demobilisation”, and by Sue Aspinall as “one of the few British films to deal explicitly with these changes in woman’s consciousness wrought by the war.”

– Nicholas Page

Part of our monthly theme: Hatchet for a Honeymoon: Marriage and the Screen


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