Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Betting on a British Winner

One of the great, overlooked British dramas, 1949’s The Rocking Horse Winner (based on a D.H. Lawrence story) details the plight of a well-mannered boy, Paul Grahame (John Howard Davies) who lives a content, bourgeois existence with his two younger sisters, his beautiful mother, Hester (Valerie Hobson) and his father, Richard (Hugh Sinclair). Hester's an extravagant spender dissatisfied with her middle class surroundings; she frequently states, “We must have more money” to Richard, a shiftless gambler. One Christmas, the gift of a rocking horse allows Paul the otherworldly means necessary to elevate his family to wealth, but the riches come at an irrevocable price.

Anthony Pelissier’s resourceful, intelligent direction and tasteful, economic script help make this little-seen fantasy one of the best examples of honest, straightforward storytelling in film history. It’s unfortunate Pelissier directed only a few films, but the artistic accomplishments he achieved while devising Winner mark him as a major film director of the period. In a concise 91 minutes, every scene appears important to the film as a whole, and the director manages to unfold the far-fetched plot in an adroit manner, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief and become thoroughly engrossed in the story.

Equally important to the film’s artistic success are the deft enactment of the two main characters by Howard Davies and Hobson. Guided by Pelissier’s sure hand, the actors give low-keyed yet expressive, naturalistic performances that serve as prime illustrations of superior film acting: Hobson and Howard Davies manage to avoid the temptation of overplaying their meaty parts and execute their roles with great sincerity and perception.

Howard Davies, who also played the title role in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, was one of the most unaffected, gifted child actors ever to appear in films, and as Paul Grahame in Winner he gives a realistic, mesmerizing performance. With his trusting eyes and his offbeat, slightly elfin appearance Davies effortlessly embodies the innocence of youth, and he delivers his lines in a charming, completely believable manner. His acting is so assured and focused that Davies doesn’t seem to be performing: he becomes Paul.

Valerie Hobson had been acting in films for over fifteen years before Winner and, although Hobson was undeniably an extraordinary-looking woman with her slim, glacial, aristocratic features, onscreen she normally adopted a reserved, unemotional persona, remaining beautiful, ladylike and colorless in her roles. The challenging, multi-faceted part of Hester provided Hobson with a chance to demonstrate her rarely seen abilities as a fine dramatic performer. Although Hobson’s icy, reserved disposition was ideal for the role, she imparts dimensions to Hester that are not apparent in the script. It’s impossible to tell how much of Hobson’s complex, acute performance is a result of fine direction, and how much the quality of her work has to do with Hobson’s unique identification with the character. In the film’s more intense sequences, Hobson pushes her acting skills to the limit to convey the tragic woman Hester has become. It’s rare to witness emotions this vivid onscreen, and audiences are sure to be entranced as they watch Hobson plunge the depths of human despair.

Although some scenes in The Rocking Horse Winner may be frightening to very young, impressionable viewers, curious adult audiences interested in discovering a subtle, unusual fable delineating the catastrophic effects avarice can have on a family will find in Winner that rarity of the cinema: a perfect film.


At 9:30 PM, Blogger RC said...

I have read the rocking horse winner before but i had no idea that there was a film adaptation of this story.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com


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