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The Astonished Heart

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some clips from The Astonished Heart.

Many years ago, I ran off a 16mm print of Terence Fisher’s film of The Astonished Heart, written by and starring Noël Coward, for some friends in my office, and we were all struck by seriousness and intensity of the film, which has, to this day, a rather indifferent reputation. I just saw it again, and although it belongs to a different century, and a different society altogether — so much has changed — the essential veracity of the piece remains intact. I was surprised to discover that the Film Society of Lincoln Center apparently agreed, for they screened the film this past May 11th, 2012 in 35mm format; I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are their program notes, in part: “another adaptation (like Brief Encounter) from the Tonight at 8:30 cycle [of Coward's plays], The Astonished Heart also marked the last time Coward played a leading role on film. Originally, Michael Redgrave was cast as psychiatrist Christian Faber and actually began filming in June, 1949. Coward saw the rushes and wasn’t happy. He decided he should play the part himself and was relieved when he discussed it with Redgrave, who agreed [. . .] Faber is married to Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) but becomes infatuated with her friend (Margaret Leighton) [The film] is an opportunity to see Coward and his “family”—longtime companion Graham Payn and muse Joyce Carey—playing together one last time. Towards the end of his life, Coward would refer to “poor old Astonished Heart. I should love to see it again, just to see if it really is as bad as they said it was.” And of course, it wasn’t—it just happened to come at a time when, in England, Coward could do nothing right as far as the critics were concerned. On the Continent, it became a cult film . . .” And eventually the film was rediscovered in England, as well, and re-evaluated as being something more than a misfire.

Coward’s leading role in the film, it turns out, was necessitated by the need to pay some back taxes Coward suddenly discovered that he owed; his salary for the leading role of The Astonished Heart would just pay off the amount due. Reports to the contrary, Coward had no artistic quarrel with Redgrave; he just needed the money, right away.  When Redgrave was dismissed, he was paid his salary in full, thus pushing the film over-budget in both time and money. Thus, when shooting recommenced, it was done at a very rapid clip indeed, to keep the film from spiraling financially out of control altogether.

Coward also composed the music for the film, in addition to doing the screenplay, while Terence Fisher, later a star for Hammer Films, supposedly co-directed the film with Anthony (aka Antony) Darnborough, though those who knew Darnborough, who produced the film, said later that this co-direction credit was more “honorary” than anything else. I heartily agree; one can see Fisher’s guiding hand in every frame.

What ultimately distinguishes The Astonished Heart is that it’s a resolutely personal enterprise; even if Coward took over the lead for purely mercenary reasons, his portrayal of the anguished psychiatrist is both unsettling and altogether believable. The music is his, the screenplay is his, the source material is his, and he’s the lead — introduced, incidentally, only about 15 minutes into the brief 85 minute film, which is more than 95% told in flashback. Viewing it again, I can’t seen anyone else playing the role, not even the immensely talented Michael Redgrave; this was Coward’s part alone, one that he created, and understood, and the results are quite extraordinary.

The Astonished Heart is out on Region 2 DVD in an acceptable transfer; you should see it for yourself; it’s quite an impressive piece of work.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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