Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 3, 2004)
It’s official: with the release of 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, we now have every Academy Awards Best Picture from the Forties available on DVD! That leaves the Twenties, Thirties, Fifties and Nineties. The latter will become complete soon with Schindler’s List, but the others still have a way to go. We don’t have either of the two BP winners from the Twenties, and still need three from the Thirties and two from the Fifties.
Nonetheless, it’s nice to finally finish off the Forties. Mrs. Miniver starts in the summer of 1939 and follows the experiences of a British middle-class family as the nation girds for war. We meet Mrs. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her extended brood. At home, this clan includes architect husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), young daughter Judy (Clare Sandars) and toddler son Toby (Christopher Severn). Their older son Vin (Richard Ney) soon returns from Oxford as well.
At the start of the movie, we see conflicts between various social classes. For one, the Minivers spend a little beyond their means, which some interpret as an attempt to promote themselves as being a higher status. In addition, local railway clerk Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) grows a rose that he names the “Mrs. Miniver” after the lovely Kay. He plans to enter it in the Beldon Challenge Cup, a contest run by – and always won by – aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), which presents a serious challenge to the status quo.
Idealistic young Vin also spouts off against the British class system, a discussion that brings him into some conflict with Lady Beldon’s granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright). Unsurprisingly, the attractive young pair start to manifest romantic interest in each, though her summer departure to Scotland disrupts that effort.
The film jumps to September 1939, when Carol returns from Scotland and also the country enters the war. We watch their re-acquaintance as well as the impact the conflict has on the community. The Minivers’ maid Gladys (Brenda Forbes) becomes distraught when her boyfriend Horace (Rhys Williams) gets called into action.
From there we leap to May 1940 and we watch the continued effect of the conflict on the town. Vin joined the RAF and gets called into service as a pilot after a quick training; manpower shortages require his accelerated promotion and he gets a rank as Pilot Officer. Vin and Carol get engaged, but they don’t enjoy much time to celebrate, as they call him into action. Clem also goes to Dunkirk as part of a river patrol; he acts to help retrieve stranded members of the British Expeditionary Force.
The rest of the movie stays around this time, as the family goes through bombings and other calamities. Really, Miniver presents almost no plot. Instead, it prefers to focus on a depiction of daily life among the civilians of England during the early wartime.
In theory, that should make for a very good movie. In reality, Miniver exists as little more than bland propaganda. One major problem stems from the exceedingly dull characters. It seems odd that they named the flick Mrs. Miniver, for Kay really does little throughout the story. Vin and Carol play the most prominent roles and show the most personality, though even they stay pretty boring.
Unfortunately, the movie’s titular icon comes across as little more than a cipher. Kay seems more like a symbol than an actual character. The role asks Garson to look noble and vaguely stressed at times but little more than that. She fills those goals acceptably well, but I can’t figure out how she won an Oscar for this one-dimensional and unchallenging part.
Miniver exists solely as a boost for Allied morale during World War II. It shows the need for strength in the face of adversity and comes across as little more than a piece of propaganda. Within the timeframe in which it was created, that seems appropriate. Unfortunately, 60 years down the road, this doesn’t make it a good film.
A lot of the problem comes from the simple dullness of the story. It enjoys occasional interesting moments. For example, when the long-delayed Beldon Cup competition occurs, we find some interesting twists. Travers presents one of the film’s few compelling bits when he displays Mr. Ballard’s reaction to this event. The death of a character toward the end also presents some moderately moving bits.
Unfortunately, the movie uses the latter as nothing more than an excuse for more propaganda. The town’s vicar spouts about the need to carry on and turns a sad moment into a pep rally. Again, this makes perfect sense in the context of the era. No one wanted a movie in which people die and the survivors act depressed; folks needed to see that they could experience sadness and still endure.
But that doesn’t make this effective or entertaining many years later, and Mrs. Miniver hasn’t aged well. Nothing about the movie seems especially poor, but the project is such a piece of its time that it lacks much value in a modern age. It doesn’t help that the film moves at a monotonous pace and features dull, one-dimensional characters. Chalk up Mrs. Miniver as one of the less interesting Oscar winners.