Drawing upon trial records, the defendant’s letters and the deceased’s memorandum book, David Lean’s Madeleine stars wife Ann Todd as Madeleine Smith, who was tried in 1857 for the murder of her lover in Glasgow. Emile L’Angelier considers himself engaged to Madeleine, who nevertheless keeps postponing introducing him to her well-to-do family. Meanwhile, Madeleine’s father pressures his daughter’s engagement to the respectable William Minnoch. Madeleine resists until Emile refuses to elope with her, insisting he wishes instead to marry into her circumstance rather than have her marry into his. His upper-class entitlement having faded, Emile keenly feels every slight that the world inflicts—such as having to sneak in through the servants’ entrance and meet Madeleine in her servant girl’s bedroom—now that he is a common laborer. Madeleine misjudges his feelings as manipulative greed; her world cannot comprehend the one into which Emile has fallen, or the wounding of the fall, as becomes clear when she assaults his walking stick—the one thing he possesses of a gentleman’s. Lean is on the right track here as elsewhere by stressing class and class sensitivity rather than sex, although Emile’s stick resonates also as a symbol of his manhood and a defense against his powerlessness and vulnerability.
Lean is too often too fond of “academic ambiguity,” the muddling of narrative in the cause of projecting an ambiguous circumstance by resisting taking a side as to what constitutes truth or reality. This material may have tempted Lean in that direction, but he admirably resists. We have no doubt of Madeleine’s innocence of poisoning Emile with arsenic because of brief scenes of Madeleine alone that Lean inserts to convey reactions and feelings of hers that are inconsistent with her having killed him. At trial Madeleine is exonerated of one charge and her guilt “not proven” on another—a possible Scottish verdict. We are asked by an intrusive narrator what we think, whether Madeleine is guilty or innocent; and if we have been attentive, we know.
Madeleine’s two engagements, one public and the other closeted, might have collapsed into reductive, silly clichés regarding hypocritical Victorian sexuality, including passion driven underground by society’s mania for a respectable surface. But here also Lean directs his film along a more interesting course.
Indeed, assisted by his own startling camera angles, his use of deep focus to suggest a rigid family structure, Guy Green’s dark, dramatic black-and-white cinematography, and Todd’s superlative acting, Lean avoids every possible pitfall except the thinning out of the material that comes with the trial.
This is one of Lean’s few good films—ironically, one he made just to please his wife, who had wanted to play on screen a role she had already happily played onstage.
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