[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
The first of the best films of 1975 has been and gone, and won’t be back, at least at your naborhood theatre. Love among the Ruins appeared on ABC-TV on March 6; reportedly, an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier ensures that it will never be released theatrically. One can only hope that the film will soon be leaked quietly to 16mm nontheatrical distributors (as, for instance, is the case with Losey’s A Doll’s House), for it’s a treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserves better than to become merely a memory itself.
An old bachelor of a barrister (Olivier) is engaged to defend a faded—but scarcely diminished—lady of the theatre (Katharine Hepburn) from a cad’s breach-of-promise suit. As the widow of a nobleman, she represented a fair catch and an even fairer mark; and in a moment compounded equally of pity, need, and her irrepressible theatricality she just may have left herself open to the subsequent charge. That concerns the barrister, less because he has to save her than because 40 years ago the lady—then a touring player in Canada—loved him for three ecstatic days and nights and then left him to the cold consolation of the law. At least, so he insists, and persists in insisting, while the lady in question, whenever she does deign to hear what he’s saying, looks at him as though he were quite mad. Eventually the aged Jessica grants that the remembered Jessie might have been based in some measure on her since the man will go on insisting—but even then she behaves as though such a creature were a character separate from herself.
We are directed beyond Jessica and Jessie to an inevitable movie memory: a hoydenish young girl, half-English, half-French, all wonder and perplexity, who essayed the part of a traveling player for a brief portion of a now-40-year-old film named Sylvia Scarlett which, despite its initial failure and the long haul of decades, has at last achieved its proper recognition as perhaps the most exquisitely disturbing—and certainly the most evocative—picture of George Cukor’s career. Katharine Hepburn also played Sylvia (Sylvester) Scarlett (Snow); but Love among the Ruins is a film about George Cukor even more than one about this ageable but indestructible actress with whom he has collaborated so long (from her first film, in fact): Love among the Ruins would not be the same or mean the same if Lunt and Fontanne had played the leads, as originally and now unthinkably intended, but even as is, its proper subject is less the mysteries of personality than the earned sublimity of mise-en-scène.
As Andrew Sarris has observed, the emotional core of the film rests not with the object of contemplation, adoration, and—in the fullest sense—veneration who stands in need of legal salvation, but with the yearning, agonizing Olivier who has maintained a shrine in his heart. I should go further and insist that, marvelous as Olivier and Hepburn are—and Olivier’s self-revealing “Jessie–ca” in the middle of his desperate, triumphant peroration before the court marks one of the few instances in my experience when this actor’s indisputable technical mastery was fully validated emotionally—the real miracle of Love among the Ruins is measured by and is inseparable from a pair of receding tracking shots, near the film’s beginning and just before its end, that respectively postulate and celebrate two separate lives consecrated to each other; and this aesthetic and emotional consummation inheres in the vision of the director who has dreamed it all. Love among the Ruins is an exquisite film, which may imply and in this case does imply that it’s quite a nice film. Also an elegant comedy. But its exquisiteness, like the magnificent expressiveness of the lawyer’s stare as he gazes upon the woman whose loss to him has defined all his subsequent life, derives from the deepest pain; for as the plot moves toward its conclusion, the man must destroy his icon in order to save the woman—and she, exercising the kind of near-directorial authority that only the most gifted of players can manage onstage and off-, must collaborate in this destruction to redeem them both.
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
Direction: George Cukor. Screenplay: James Costigan. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Music: John Barry.
The Players: Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely, Richard Pearson, Leigh Lawson, Joan Sims.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson