About a year ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Gone to Earth to a read, and while doing so, I thought about how good the movie adaptation would be in the hands of Powell and Pressburger. Besides the fact that they’re some of my favorite filmmakers, as I became more immersed in the book the more I realized the story was perfect for them. It deals with a lot of their frequent themes of submerged sexuality and places a great importance on the environment.
Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is a naive girl living in Shropshire, England, with her harpist father (Esmond Knight). She has a deep affinity for nature and as such takes care of several animals, especially her pet fox named Foxy. She catches the eye of the local squire, Jack Reddin of Undern (David Ferrar), and is powerless to resist him. She is caught between Reddin’s desire and the friendship and respect she has with the man she marries, the parson Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). Adding some comic relief is Reddin’s servant Vessons (Hugh Griffith).
Even though this sort of thing is right up my alley, I can see a lot of modern viewers sort of rolling their eyes at this movie. Hazel is a very hard character to watch at times, because if you don’t take the time to try to understand her, it would be easy to dismiss her as simply stupid and once you’ve done that it’s going to be hard to take the rest of the movie seriously. Jones gives a great performance, but her accent is going to distance a lot of people from it. You have to understand where Hazel is coming from, the film does a good job of showing how uncaring and unconcerned her father is with her upbringing. This whole film can be viewed as a cautionary tale against parents not giving their kids “the talk,” which is especially a problem in the late 1800s. Hazel has next to no understanding of sex, and as such is very easy for Reddin to trap.
The film is largely constructed as a sort of fairy tale tragedy, with a simple and innocent heroine who is doomed at the hands of more powerful men. The connection to nature is very strong throughout the film, we see Hazel care for small animals and Reddin hunt them down. Adding to the film’s fairy tale atmosphere is Hazel’s own brand of mysticism inherited from her gypsy mother. As in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, the characters’ environment is paramount. Powell and Pressburger actually filmed in Shropshire, near where Powell grew up. In the film, the mountains are said to have a mystical power, holding characters accountable for their promises. The film gives us some sweeping shots of them, strangely lit by the sunset, to emphasize their power. Even more similar to Black Narcissus, is the wind. In both films, it is used as an unwelcome movement, pushing the characters to places they are not comfortable going.
Though the film is undoubtedly about Hazel, the contrast between the two men is very interesting. Reddin is the more threatening one, but also more earthy and as such is better able to attract Hazel. However, he is very possessive and it’s clear that even though Hazel is attracted to Reddin she would rather not be with him. There is a fantastic scene between the two of them in Hazel’s room that might undermine this however, but Reddin’s softer side is seldom shone outside of that one scene. Edward, on the other hand, is more cerebral and spiritual than Reddin, and also seeks to protect Hazel and actually respects her. The problem is that Edward, sensing Hazel’s naivety, pulls away from her, making it all the more easier for Reddin to move in.
Though there are several spectacular scenes in this movie, all in all I wouldn’t say it’s fully realized from the novel. I think it cut out a bit from the end, though I did read the novel almost a year ago so I might be mistaken. Even so, the ending feels quite abrupt, even though the film sets it up beautifully from the beginning. I hate to say it, but I feel as if the acting in this film is somewhat uneven. I already mentioned Jones’ accent problems, which make it hard to lend credibility to her character, but otherwise I would say her performance is pretty good. Ferrar is also kind of spotty, while he gives Reddin an appropriate air of brutality it doesn’t come as naturally as it seems to Jones. I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that the films’ best scenes, discounting the one between Hazel and Reddin described earlier, are essentially silent. The Hunter’s Spinney scene is brilliant; it’s done all without sound and the symbolism is bold and direct, which suits the story. So while the acting isn’t bad per se, it’s not the highlight of the movie.
Gone to Earth is a book that has largely been forgotten, and the film hasn’t fared much better. I’m not necessarily going to get up on my soapbox about it because Powell and Pressburger have done better in other films, but I am a little bit because they are still at the top of their form here. If you like the Archers’ other films than I can’t recommend this enough, and the same goes for fans of melodrama. Still, I can’t help but worry that modern audience’s wouldn’t take to the film to well, but as for me, I loved it.
“Has she ever called you that?”
Long story short: 3/4 stars