Sons & Lovers

cast: Dean Stockwell, Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller, Donald Pleasance, and Mary Ure

director: Jack Cardiff

99 minutes (PG) 1960 widescreen ratio 16:9
inD / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Sons & Lovers looks a lot like the kind of film you get on in the afternoons, and that your mum watches. ‘Oh why can’t they have films like this on in the evenings?’ they moan. Well… that’s actually quite a good point as despite being a 45-year-old melodrama; this film has enough intelligence and artistry to it to entertain even the most hardened cinematic cynic.

An adaptation of a novel by D.H. Lawrence, Sons & Lovers tells the story of Paul Morel. Paul was born into a coal-mining family in the northwest. His intelligence and interest in the arts estranges him from his father and brother but is encouraged by his mother who wants more for him than a life “down t’ pit.” However, this support comes at a price because Paul’s relationship with his mother is far from healthy. Paul’s mother resists any changes that might result in Paul drifting out of her control. At first this manifests itself by Paul being unable to take a scholarship to art school because it would involve moving to London, but soon it becomes all too clear that Paul’s relationship with his mother has left him unable to truly love another woman. Initially Paul tries to turn his pure friendship with Miriam into a physical relationship. However, Miriam is a religious girl and takes no pleasure in sex prompting Paul to cut all ties to her, because clearly if he cannot have a physical relationship with her, what use is she? He has the love of his mother after all… he then becomes involved with Clara, a suffragette who is estranged from her husband, but while Clara is willing to give Paul the physical relationship he craves, she is unwilling to do so without the love that Paul keeps only for his mother. At the end of the film Paul realises that he belonged to his mother, but even with his mother gone he refuses to love another woman, for fear of belonging to anyone else ever again.

At the time of writing, Lawrence would not have been aware of the writings of Freud on the Oedipus complex and he certainly would not have been aware of what is now called a co-dependent relationship. However, in the relationship between Paul and his mother, he exemplifies both beautifully. For an American film (albeit with a British writer and director), Sons & Lovers is amazingly subtle. While it is clear from the beginning that Paul and his mother love each other a little too much, Paul mother is never demonised for that love and Paul is never portrayed as a fool for accepting it. This portrayal is so even-handed that at the end when Miriam returns and offers Paul a second chance at love and a career as an artist, it seems almost as though the film is desperate to evade an unhappy ending. However, the focus of this film is upon Paul’s relationship with his mother and the results of this upon his relationships with women. By showing Paul simply walking away from Miriam, it shows that the damage is done and while he may have second chances to have a happy life, his relationship with his mother will always prevent that.

Sons & Lovers is beautifully shot (it won a Golden Globe for Cardiff and an Oscar for the cinematography); the black and white wonderfully brings out the poverty and sadness of life in a pit village. Cardiff also pulls together a number of truly wonderful set pieces such as the vibrations on the water when the mine collapses and Paul and Clara’s pre-sex card game where Paul’s mind is obviously not on his cards.

Wendy Hiller steals the show as Gertrude Morel, and the great Trevor Howard, who made two or three films a year right up until the year he died, ably supports her. The only bum note was the actor imposed by the American studios. Dean Stockwell is nowadays better known as Al from Quantum Leap and is something of a cult icon. While his British accent is perfectly good, he fails to truly capture the henpecked Paul. He veers from camp to brooding rebel and his performance in the scene after Paul has sex with Miriam might well leave modern audiences feeling unsympathetic towards his character, as he exudes ill will without any of the self-loathing that the scene is supposed to convey.

All things considered, this is a great film. The acting is mostly top notch, the cinematography is beautiful and the plot is truly heartbreaking. This is Hollywood melodrama, as they don’t make it any more. The intelligence of the original Lawrence text and the discipline of Cardiff keep this film focussed as an examination of an unhealthy relationship and refuse to allow it to become the pseudo-romantic schlock that it could so easily have become. Next time your mum watches it on telly join her… just don’t sit too close together.