Mary (Ann Todd) is taking her first holiday in nine years. She and her husband Howard (Claude Rains) will be staying in Switzerland. She arrives ahead of Howard, leaving him to tie up a few loose ends in his banking business before joining her.
By pure coincidence, the hotel room Mary has booked is right next door to a room occupied by an old friend. Steven (Trevor Howard), the holiday neighbor, is a man she is in love with but has not seen since New Year’s Eve almost ten years prior.
Reminiscing on old times, Mary leads the viewer into flashbacks that tell the story of her great love with Steven, and how she wound up married to Howard instead of the man she truly loves. Will she and Steven reunite in the Alps?
The Passionate Friends is based on a novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. The film was directed by David Lean and was entered into the 1949 Festival de Cannes.
For the first 52 minutes or so, The Passionate Friends is full of flashbacks upon flashbacks. Sometimes there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. And we all know I’m a sucker for this storytelling technique! The entire film isn’t told in flashbacks — the Ann and Steven relationship is set up through them, but then the viewer gets to see the outcome of the Steven/Ann/Howard love triangle play out in the film’s present for the remainder of the run-time.
These flashbacks work exceedingly well for two reasons: Ann Todd’s performance and the film’s stunning photography. Either Todd was very good at “finding her light,” as they phrase it in the modeling world, or the cinematography team just had a knack for shooting her. Mary’s emotion as the film enters her mind to transition into a flashback is portrayed so well through the combination of her facial expressions and the photography. It reminds me a bit of how wonderfully Judy Garland’s face is photographed in Meet Me In St. Louis.
The photography is equally stunning in the present-set scenes, with dramatic use of light and high contrast. There’s clever use of shadow (again, a favorite thing of mine).
As if engrossing flashbacks and lush cinematography weren’t enough to draw me in, all three of the film’s central performances are wonderful. A very solid cast was put together to carry the sometimes-typical love triangle story. Ann Todd easily makes the viewer feel for her character; Trevor Howard is appropriately swoony-eyed in his scenes with Todd; Claude Rains adds a lot of tension to the film.
My favorite scenes are those which involve all three actors. That tense confrontation after Howard (the character, not to be confused with Trevor Howard) finds out that Mary and Steven weren’t at the theater when they were spending time together – what a scene! Rains is an actor with such great range. He mastered characters like this, the possessive husband, but in other films (such as Mr. Skeffington) could tear the viewer’s heart in two, using the weapon of sentimentality. I will never tire of watching his films.
Though the story does follow the exact arc you’d expect from a love triangle, it wraps up in and unexpected and incredibly emotional ending. Again, Ann Todd’s acting is stellar in these final scenes. I haven’t watched too much of her work, but I’ll definitely be seeking out more after loving this film so much.
The Passionate Friends is a grade-A drama. Highly recommended for fans of romantic drama or of British films. The score: 5/5!