Friday, February 11, 2011
21 Days (UK; Basil Dean, 1940)
This was a pleasant surprise. What seemed like a basic love story turned out to be a dark tale of escalating guilt and moral obligation surrounding a crime of passion and a wrongful conviction. When Larry Durrant (Laurence Olivier) accidentally kills his lover's (soon-to-be-wife Vivien Leigh) estranged blackmailing husband, his life goes from bad to worse. When a homeless ex-minister gets collared for the crime, hopes are raised that he may get away with it; that is if his guilt doesn't destroy him first. The 21 days specified in the title refer to the three weeks the lovers have together before the verdict comes out. Contrary as to what the title would suggest, this is the film's most uneventful element, the real intrigue found in the trial scenes and the relationship between Larry and his prosecutor brother (Leslie Banks), whose complicity after the fact puts his career in jeopardy. Extremely dark photographay helps to create a treacherous world where guilt is contagious and pennance is seeked out, integrity alone able to set it right. While easily citeable as a good opportunity to see Olivier and Leigh in the same picture, and seeing as I've never really been a fan of Olivier (I find his acting too calculated; even for those days), the directing is very well worth mentioning as it goes a long way into making this potentially bland story into an engaging narrative. Completely unknown to me, Basil Dean impressed me with his fluid overhead camera movements and escalating editing, cutting to closer shots as the tension rises, for example. His composition is also interesting, including various askew angles and expressive mise-en-scene that lend a threatening crookedness to the world he builds. As a story alone, 21 Days is nothing really extraordinary. Like many films before or since, however, its value can be found in the way it is told.