May 23, 2008

Carve Her Name With Pride: The marvelous Ms. McKenna


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

Among the dozen or so excellent reasons to watch Carve Her Name With Pride is the fact that this film--about a WWII hero who happened to be woman--holds up marvelously. From its romantic scenes to its suspense, from the surprise at seeing a classic British beauty being put through a set of karate moves, to the heartfelt moments that bring a sudden reminder about "duty to country" in what was arguably--screw it: what was clearly--the last war that needed to be fought for reasons of right, wrong and necessity, this movie works.

And another reason is to acquaint, or for the older viewer, reacquaint oneself with a marvelous actress named Virginia McKenna. Best known for the international hit Born Free (about the Kenya couple Joy and George Adamson, who raised the famous lion sub Elsa to maturity), McKenna had much of the beauty, class, talent and breeding of our own Grace Kelly (but with more a spirited, natural, country-girl appeal than the highly made-up, fashion-conscious "Country Girl" that Kelly usually essayed), McKenna was an oft-nominated BAFTA winner (for the 1956 version of A Town Like Alice). Awarded an O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2004, and she's still with us, a grandmother who continues to act--mostly on British television, most recently in a "Miss Marple" episode filmed in 2005.

In Carve Her Name with Pride, McKenna has perhaps her best role as a sweet young girl named Violette Bushell (born of the union of a British dad and French mom who met during WWI). She becomes enamored of a French Foreign Legionnaire during the war, and because of her language skills and keen intelligence, goes to work for the British and the French underground. I am told that the film adheres pretty rigorously to the actual story. Made in 1958, it captures well the look and feel of London during wartime, and the French actors used (including Maurice Ronet and Alain Saury) bring added verisimilitude. And due to the time in which it was filmed, the movie offers much less torture and blood than would a film made today, but interestingly, it does not need this to grab our attention. Because it seems true to its own time, in all the important ways, it rings true in ours.

Well-directed by talented journeyman Lewis Gilbert (who did everything from the original Alfie to a couple of early-to-middle James Bond films and the execrable Harold Robbins potboiler The Adventurers), the movie offers a look at Paul Scofield in only his second film, as the male lead, and an about-as-young-as-you're likely-to-see-her Billie Whitelaw as Violette's best friend. It also offers a genuinely beautiful poem, first spoken as a singular declaration of love but last recited in a broader sense--and with appropriate visuals--that packs an inordinate amount of feeling and understanding of our currently-subverted concept of patriotism. To view Carve Her Name With Pride is to comprehend for whom and for what real patriots are willing to die.

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Posted by cphillips at May 23, 2008 1:24 PM
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