Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Release Date: July 3rd, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William Wyler Actors: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Richard Ney, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Brenda Forbes
n the summer of 1939, an average, English, middle-class family will be forever changed by the looming war, causing the formerly happy, carefree people to fight for their way of life … and life itself. Quite unsuspecting of the coming events, Mrs. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) occupies her time with trivial, materialistic items, rushing around the city and deciding at the last minute to return to a shop for an extravagant hat. “I’m afraid I do like nice things,” she muses.
Various townsfolk mumble about Germany’s assembling armies, but they’re mostly distracted by everyday inconveniences (such as customers, customer service, and competing clientele) and routines. Kay’s husband, architect Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon), also has his pressing concerns, such as purchasing a new car or being too busy to humor his two young children. The Minivers might be considered middle-class, but their spacious home, maids and cooks and tutors, and expensive tastes (or recklessness, as Mr. Miniver calls it) bespeak of something far beyond mid-level financial comfort.
They’re quite lucky, and they acknowledge it. When their son Vincent (Richard Ney) returns from Oxford, he brings with him the realization that he knows so very little about the real world. And he’s gained a sense of social consciousness (and the class system by which they remain above some but below others in reputation and wellbeing and expectations). “One can’t waste too much time over the vanities of life,” suggests Vincent, just as the lovely young Carol (Teresa Wright), from an aristocratic family, requests that Kay might convince elderly commoner James Ballard (Henry Travers) to withdraw his magnificent new rose from a flower competition, so as not to upset the typical winner: Carol’s grandmother.
“Is this a time for frivolity?” Budding romance and blossoming roses don’t seem so significant against the backdrop of war. Patriotism and politics arise, which threaten to dismantle the feudal system that Vincent is certain still governs his modest English village. Everyone else maintains a certain disbelief – in both socioeconomic inequality and in Hitler’s ability to strike at the heart of England. For the Minivers, there’s also a reluctance to accept Vincent’s enlistment and involvement in combat, especially as he advances through the ranks rather rapidly. The storytelling is fast-paced, too, skipping large chunks of time with the mere transition of scenes, creating a comprehensive, epic feel, even when character interactions feel rushed (perhaps coincidentally sharing a significant similarity to the design and subject matter of “Cavalcade”).
Historical wartime components work their way into the plot, including the massive assemblage of boats for the Dunkirk rescue, though the action – and the focus – stays predominantly with the regular people back home, examining the shifting attitudes and vexation or optimism that plague those indirectly involved in the war effort. During one scene of suspense, Mrs. Miniver discovers a wounded German pilot, who’s scripted to be an obvious villain, rather than the multi-faceted teenager that could have made his inclusion thought-provoking. Clearly, this film intends to chronicle the perseverance of brave citizens who fought an inhuman, unrecognizable enemy – a perspective that is easy to dramatize, but one that lacks depth.
To its credit, the picture highlights the now old-fashioned beliefs about the roles of women in both wartime and in households, along with their unassuming participation and losses, painting Kay to be a strong, independent character, admirably pushing against the norm. It’s entirely fitting that the film revolves around her (and the symbolic flower that shares her name), and not the men that surround her. In another movingly artistic choice, the premise circles back to the idea of preoccupation with pleasant things – an effective coping method for both the tedium of quiet times and while the Minivers huddle together in a rattling bomb shelter as explosions sound off just outside – whether it be about a favorite childhood book or the best rose in the community. In the end, it’s a tragic yet hopeful portrayal of an engrossing character passing through one of the world’s darkest times. Coincidentally, “Mrs. Miniver” shared not only actors Rhys Williams and Walter Pidgeon with 1941’s Best Picture Academy Award winner “How Green Was My Valley,” but also the golden statue itself in 1942.
– Mike Massie