Review: Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

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After an unexpected hiatus, I’m pleased to announce the next classic to grace the Girl On Film blog is Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) starring Virginia McKenna, directed by Lewis Gilbert and based on the book of the same name by R.J. Minney.

Acting as a precursor to films such as Female Agents (2008) and Charlotte Grey (2000), Carve Her Name With Pride tells the true story of Violette Szabo and her heroic achievements as a Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) in occupied France during World War Two. Having lost her French husband in battle, Violette uses her resourceful, natural aptitude for espionage and unsurpassable bravery to become the one of the first women to be awarded the George Cross.

The film is surprisingly gritty for its time, shedding the sometimes predictable and jingoistic tendencies of many post-war films. For Violette it seems, it is as much about fighting for honour of her husband’s sacrifice and memory as it is for the good of her country. Virginia McKenna is superb in the role, and has highlighted Carve Her Name With Pride as one of her most challenging performances as an actress. By the time we reach Violette’s torturous days as a prisoner, we cannot doubt McKenna’s dedication and commitment to the role. McKenna is the all-round star of the piece, shooting, parachuting and out-smarting her way through many difficult situations with both sophistication and absolute realism. The film is a testament to her acting talent and certainly surpasses A Town Like Alice (a film which always felt half-finished when matched with its original source) for her portrayal alone.

With a number of gripping set pieces, ranging from a violent machine gun shootout across the French countryside to a burning train wreck, Carve Her Name With Pride illuminates the scope of Violette’s journey in David Lean-style proportions. Away from the action, the scenes within the family home of her parents and young daughter are remarkably convincing and never appear to simply serve as an emotional trigger for the audience. Her provincial home is the setting for one of the most effective scenes: as Violette receives the telegram announcing her husband’s death, the door simply closes and the camera pans back down the hallway, leaving the heartbreaking sentiment unheard but understood.

A romance blossoms between Violette and fellow secret agent Captain Tony Fraser played by the charming Paul Scofield (whom I imagine to be a cross between Dominic West and Dougray Scott). An interesting relationship develops between the two, both encouraging the other to fight on and face their fears. Some amusing scenes which trace Violette’s development at the S.O.E. training camp provide the obligatory sexism for her to rise above and exceed all expectation. Captain Fraser however, refreshingly sees Violette as an absolute equal and soon falls in love with both the woman and the spy.

Carve Her Name With Pride has absolutely stood the test of time, owing to its true story roots and a pitch-perfect recount of the events helmed by a solid performance (which also won McKenna a BAFTA award). Its appeal lies with the compelling stories of those asked to go beyond the call of duty and forge their names among the list of extraordinary people we ought never to forget.

Finally, the poem ‘The Life That I Have’ by Leo Marks which serves as both a plot point and a motif throughout the film is especially touching:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours.

The love that I have

Of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have

A rest I shall have

Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years

In the long green grass

Will be yours and yours and yours.

Carve Her Name With Pride is available for a limited time to those living in the UK on BBC iPlayer.

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Review: As Good As It Gets (1997)

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Who have thought that Jack Nicholson’s devilish grin would suit the smart comedic and heart-warming charm of James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets? Before 1997, Nicholson’s grin was suited to the sadistic humour of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman reboot. But as with that fine turn, the casting of Nicholson as Melvin Udall is one of genuine genius.

Indeed the evil traits of the Joker and neuroses of his former characters aren’t all that far from our memory when we meet Melvin Udall in the opening act of As Good As It Gets when he throws his neighbour’s dog down the garbage chute in an apartment building. A misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive germ-a-phobe (note: not the technical term) and novelist, Melvin Udall goes on to encounter a series of characters and forms unlikely friendships which throughout the film prove to be a catalyst for his recovery and change of personality. It all begins when Melvin is enlisted to help his gay artist neighbour (who has been brutally attack in an attempted robbery) by looking after his dog- forcing him to confront his crass homophobia and his irritation of animals.

Furthermore, one of the few stable ‘friendships’ (if at the start of the film we can dare to call them that) in his life is with the waitress at his regular eating place (with his own plastic cutlery) called Carol played by Helen Hunt. Her own story becomes clear as we learn that her young son suffers from acute asthma and is as much a debilitating victim of the illness as of a poor health insurance policy. Melvin becomes fond of Carol and her ability to kerb his grouchiness with finesse, and when events transpire that Melvin’s daily routine which has allowed him to settle into a life of cantankerous behaviour is disrupted, Melvin sets out to fix it- insulting and surprising a lot of people along the way.

Despite all the signs which indicate that Nicholson’s character is bound to be dislikeable to watch, the sharpness of the script written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks turn this film from two hours of the grumbles of a matured man stuck in his ways into a cinematic gem of a similar kind which made actors like Walter Matthau so enjoyable despite their character’s obvious flaws. Brooks clearly knew how to direct and write for Nicholson (having worked together previously on Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment)- every line seems to have been meant for Nicholson to utter and have all the snarling style that fits the timbre of Nicholson’s voice and technique. One also cannot forget Helen Hunt as Carol who becomes Melvin’s human element and the driving force behind the decision to change his life. Hunt and Nicholson are equal sparring partners on screen, and though some critics have seen the journey of their relationship as being overly sentimental towards the end of the film, I think it a fitting end to a film which at least to some extent alludes to optimism from the outset- the movie posters after all graces a hopeful Nicholson smiling towards to the sky. Both actors won Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Greg Kinnear (who plays Simon, Udall’s neighbour in need) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and his character gets a significant amount of screen time in order for us as viewers to fully comprehend his character’s plight and own eventual emotional salvation during the course of the film. A scene in which Simon learns of his near-bankruptcy from his friend who has to use prompt cards in order stop herself from crying is particularly heart-breaking.

During his acceptance speech at his AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1994 Nicholson ended what was already a rapturous evening with the words: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. Three years later he would win third Academy Award for this film and go on to become the second most nominated actor of all time. As Good As It Gets is a film with a star still at the top of his game. And he knew it.