David Lean's film Passionate Friends is an unknown- comparatively- gem. It stands comparison with some of the director's best work- both for being a subtle character study and for the brilliant displays of acting contained within it. Passionate Friends contains the simplest of simple stories. A woman, Mary, is in love with her friend Stephen, who is likewise in love with her, and yet she decides, for various reasons, to marry a rich and successful banker- Howard. The resulting love triangle plays its way out through the film- to much heart ache- as Mary is unable to sever herself from Howard but unable to forget that she truly loves Stephen. It might seem trite when expressed like that- but actually both cast and director manage to imbue it with meaning- using their skills as storytellers they gave the story layers and subtlety that the simple telling of it might well have missed.
Meaning is a hard thing for films to convey- especially when it comes to love, it is very easy to be trite and to sound trivial. That or one can end up lauding motherhood and apple pie- making points noone would refute. The interesting thing about this film is that it manages actually to say something about what love is and why it is successful. In the film shadowlands, a student turns to C.S. Lewis and tells him that we read to know that we are not alone, similarly in this film, I get the impression that the director is telling us that love is part of the growth of our personality outwards into the world. There is something here about love as communication. Time and time again Mary says to Stephen that she is unwilling to give herself up to him- he offers himself to her but she never is able to offer herself to him. Now one might argue that this reflects the comparative position of men and women at the time- and there is a feminist reading of this film- but I am not sure that is what Lean was driving at. Rather I think he was driving at the idea of love as sacrafice for both sexes- love as something that brings you out of yourself and for which you become a part of another unit, not a whole entire to itself. Its an interesting way of reflecting about love- but what Lean seems to argue here is that without it relationships will fail- they will always be bloodless. The argument between the husband's and the lover's love is between a love that exacts no price, has no passion and one that is passionate and enthusiastic, that is painful and expensive but ultimately more rewarding.
Pain and reward are bound up in this film with feeling. And Lean wants you to see the depth of a 'true love' throughout the film. So he provides us with texture. An essentially simple story has woven into it flashbacks which take us to the trajectory of the relationship between Stephen and Mary- their relationship is complex and terrifying. It binds them together- so that fortuitous accident means that they keep on meeting until the denoument. Those meetings reinforce the motif of depth. Whereas Mary and Howard have few meetings and they are always unhappy or worse- they are meetings whose tenor is light grey, insipid. The tone is set by the first shot of Howard as he falls asleep by the side of dancing- he is old, busy and does not throw himself into his life with Mary. Stephen does throw himself into his relationship with Mary- it might not work but it is not for lack of effort on his part- he cooks, helps her confront her husband and treats her with loving care. The direction here is incredibly skilled- Howard played by Rains is always wearing dark suits, Stephen played by Howard is always dressed sleekly. The fashions in this film are gorgeous. But it goes further than that, the camera work is fine- particularly in Switzerland and in some of the scenes, particularly one in Mary and Howard's living room, we see the choreography of direction exercised as well as it ever was. I have never seen the phrase 'would you like a cup of tea' sound so much like a dagger stabbed into a gut before. If there is amazing direction- there is also amazing acting: Rains and Trevor Howard in particular are fantastic, Ann Todd isn't as good but she still holds her own.
The only thing to say about the Passionate Friends is that it is an argument for all friendship to be passionate, it is an argument for love. The only response I could find to it was to love the film itself- wonderful acting, wonderful direction and a genuinely interesting thought about a subject on which humanity has said more than it has about just about anything else.