Let’s start with a question posed to the faithful readers of this blog: What’s better Mrs. Miniver or The Best Years of Our Lives? I haven’t seen the latter yet but that seems to be the key debate I saw after watching this, that you have to choose one or the other which is strange considering that both are directed by William Wyler. I’m attempting to see the rest of Wyler’s work after loving The Heiress and actually had Mrs. Miniver in my possession before that film. Sadly, I just didn’t enjoy this movie. There’s some fresh performances, especially from ingenue Teresa Wright, but the stock nature of the story didn’t appeal to me. I think I’ll find myself loving Best Years of Our Lives more.
The Minivers are an English middle-class family trying to live life despite the encroachment of war. Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) tries to keep her family together especially her husband (Walter Pidgeon) and young son (Richard Ney) who join the effort.
Let’s discuss the good about this movie and it comes in the form of actress Teresa Wright, a new nominee for my Hall of Fame. Wright has a devout following in the blogosphere so me praising her is just delaying the inevitable. Wright plays Carol Beldon, the granddaughter of the upper-crust Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). There’s a love story between Wright and Richard Ney, who plays the Minivers’ son Vin. While their love story doesn’t have the passion I expected, Wright always appears natural and effortless in her emotions and control of a scene. Her introduction to the story has her completely dressing down Vin, labeling him a “talker” whose content to argue everything and not help. She’s the girl next door with a fiery personality and out of all the characters, I felt her fate hit the audience hardest and I’m not sure if that was quite the intention. You’re supposed to connect strongly with Mrs. Miniver. She’s the character you shouldn’t want bad things to happen to and yet throughout I kept wondering when Wright would return.
Speaking of, time to discuss those wacky Minivers. The neighborhood showcased throughout the film is one of stagnation. People are so set into a certain way of doing things that any divergence is seen as life-threatening. When Carol Beldon goes to the Minivers she does so in order to have Mrs. Miniver convince the man entering the local flower contest to drop out because Carol’s grandmother has always won. Being a war movie the intention is to show that a small thing puts their entire world into upheaval; wait until the war hits. The Minivers are a comfortable, upper middle class family with little problem outside of Mrs. Miniver admitting she loves nice things (so it’s safe to assume the crux of the film will be her having to do without said nice things?).
The problems with the film lie strongly in the establishment of the Minivers and their life. Director Wyler admitted the film was a propaganda piece for the war and it shows in how much of a cautionary tale this is. The Minivers are too perfect, removing the everyman quality you see in war films. I didn’t identify with their plight because they’re not real people. The Miniver clan are like the Cleavers of war films. Everyone knows the Minivers to the point that the downtrodden train attendant names his rose after Mrs. Miniver because she’s equated with perfection and fine breeding. The various events in the film have little to do with each other and all show how the bad events of war affect them although nothing bad ever happens directly to the various family members. This may be a spoiler but no one in the Miniver clan dies and aside from their house being hit, they end up just as perfect and beacons of normality as they started out. To me this felt like watching a video on the dangers of war or strangers. The Netflix info mentions specifically how the discovery of a Nazi in their backyard changes their lives, yet the Nazi encounter lasts all of ten minutes and Mrs. Miniver plays it off as no big deal before it’s never mentioned again. Again, the film goes through the beats of a war movie so routinely we’re not connected to it because one event has no bearing on the overall film.
The heavy foreshadowing also appears to be for not which irritated me greatly. Mrs. Miniver and her husband Clem (Pidgeon) mention numerous times that Vin is “very young” to be joining the Air Force. Having seen the vast amount of war movies as I have this screams of Vin being killed which would have been a tragic turn of the film into showing how devastating war is. Later on Vin makes a big deal of proposing to Carol and telling her not to do something “until I get back.” With a final “don’t worry about me” you’re prepping for Vin to come back in a casket. And yet Vin ends the film completely fine! The one whose life is taken away is Carol. Yes, sweet Carol Beldon dies for nothing. Sure Vin is sad but what is truly the point of killing her. We know Vin proves he’s not a talker by the end and yet he lives. Carol, who is already labeled a woman of action in her dressing down of Vin, dies whilst doing nothing to aid the war effort. I was left confused on what we were supposed to take away from this young couple and boy was I pissed when Teresa Wright left the screen!
I’m still confused on what this film is meant to say about the war. Sure we have Lady Beldon telling Mrs. Miniver that war “gives little people a chance to feel important” and yet the ending sermon discusses how bad things happen to good people in a war. War is senseless, we know, but by not affecting the Minivers directly we take on an “it happened to somebody I knew” stance to the story (sorry if I got you singing Gotye). This is the bare bones way of looking at war and by making it a family seemingly beloved by everyone, you remove that everyman feel and make the film an idealized look at war attempting not to idealize it.
Norma Shearer rejected the role of Kay Miniver, refusing to play a mother. Even star Greer Garson didn’t want it but was bound by a contract and won an Oscar for it. Garson was good, it would have been pointless to have Shearer, but I felt she was a poor substitute for a Myrna Loy. All the Minivers are good, but not great in the acting department.
Overall, there was something missing in Mrs. Miniver. It doesn’t have the everyman quality of other war films leaving you cold to the plight of the family. They suffer from first world problems complicated by the war. The acting is average with the exception of the lovely Teresa Wright. I think I’ll enjoy The Best Years of Our Lives.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.