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Not for nothing was Laurence Olivier the son of a clergyman. It bolstered his sense of duty. When World War II broke out, he was ready. His brilliantly resourceful Henry V (1944) on a shoestring, with its enkindling speech at Agincourt, is rightly his best remembered wartime film. But Olivier, who took flying lessons and became a lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force, made a couple of other wartime films of undisguisedly propagandistic intent. That being said, both - Michael Powell's 49th Parallel (1941) and Anthony Asquith's The Demi-Paradise(1943) -- are able to get around their potentially deadening patriotic mission and achieve much that is quite watchable and enjoyable. The first is a thriller pitting a German U-boat crew stranded in Hudson Bay against Canadians, with Olivier playing a fur trapper! The second is a different kettle of fish. Or perhaps one should say borscht.
The Demi-Paradise (with its title taken from John of Gaunt's "scepter'd isle" speech in Richard II), finds Olivier playing a Russian engineer on the verge of WWII, who has come to England to get a working model built of a propeller he has designed to improve the performance of ice-breakers and make a big difference in the North Sea and the Baltic. He arrives full of skepticism, morose, preoccupied with the war that is about to engulf his country, left cold by the dismal English weather and worst of all, what he sees as the shallow, frivolous, selfish, hypocritical English. He is nothing but serious while, in view, the English are anything but.
What follows is a race against the clock to get the propeller up and running played against a battle of the sexes comedy that suggests Ninotchka (1939) with the sexes reversed. It's the second time Olivier plays a Russian named Ivan, the first being in a WWI spy romance directed by Asquith, I Stand Condemned (1935) - itself a remake of a French film, Moscow Nights (1935). It's worth citing because in it he collaborated with his Demi-Paradise co-star, Penelope Dudley-Ward, as well as Asquith. Presumably, the earlier shoot was congenial, giving them something to build on. That's the way Demi-Paradise plays, anyway. Asquith's directorial hand is a smooth one, softening the propagandistic message. And the film really comes to life when Dudley-Ward's Ann (or Ward, as she's billed here) appears on the scene to lift glum Ivan out of the doldrums after he bounces off a series of cold shoulders in London ("Eight million people in London and for two days nobody smiles at me"). Not that he does a lot of smiling.
After a clumsy beginning that shows Ivan in a fur hat telling his story in flashback in a canteen you know is in Russia because of the chess games going on and the balalaika music, the story unfolds in flashback. The big reason it succeeds as well as it does is Ward's energy as the daughter of a shipbuilding family. She seems a British Katharine Hepburn, indefatigable, swooping into her father's office, rescuing Ivan from the indifference of the staff, yanking him out of his hotel and into her family home to stay for the duration, and yanking him as well out of the melancholy in which he is submerged. Although she has plans for them after the war, she never mentions them as she tenaciously extracts Ivan from his gloom and antipathy for the English, intensified by the specter of failure at the drawing board. It also helps, after her father's cold reaction to Ivan's rude putdowns of English ways of doing things that she introduces him to her grandfather (Felix Aylmer), who not only is a visionary, but a tolerant and wise one.
If she provides the animated never-give-up spirit that begins to turn Ivan around in his view of the English, the old man is the solid presence who anchors the film in character. Ivan begins to admire the old man's calm and determination to do a job right, even as bombs fall. He, in short, is character personified, and his grand-daughter is heart. Acceptance happens by degrees, but even more important from the dramatic point of view, Aylmer's grandfather and Ward's granddaughter free Olivier's Ivan to deliver an understated performance that ends up seeming not only amusing in his fish-out-of-water context, but touching in his tentativeness and slightly nasal intonations. Not able to stride with confidence through this strange new world, Olivier's Ivan unfurls a lexicon of hesitations. Throughout his career, the early part of it anyway, Olivier was often accused of bringing his stage reflexes to the more intimate world of the camera and hitting the material too hard. Never does Olivier succumb to the crude, bumptious vocalizations of Hollywood's stage Russians of the same period. It's fun to watch him work.
Ivan's acceptance, then embrace, of the English and their ways - and their acceptance of him -- are satisfyingly played out. The first time Ward takes him to a theater, he writhes with discomfort at the stage performance of Leslie Henson as a sort of English Victor Borge, partly because he parted with eight shillings for the seats, in his eyes a sinful expenditure. Later, when they return, and he's loosened up a bit, he enjoys it, and even laughs at Henson's murder of Rachmaninoff's C sharp minor Prelude. Initially, he's offended by the clichd self-celebration of allegorical tableaux in a pageant on the grounds of his hosts' estate. Next time around, each having won the other over, he's the pageant's hero and centerpiece. (We're the ones who writhe as the script forces Ivan to unfurl a speech of Anglo-Soviet amity that could have been written by the War Office!)
We're spared the formulaic lovers' closing clinch - both have a war to win before they can get to that. Ann has enlisted in the WRNS (Women's Royal Navy Service) and Ivan, closing out the flashback and bringing the story back to the present, strides off to Murmansk, or wherever. Even Churchill's presence is underplayed. We see only a hand holding a cigar as a Churchillian voice speaks of solidarity into a BBC microphone. The film is also filled with rich character turns, some very brief, as England's A-list and A-list to be does its bit for the war effort. Margaret Rutherford and Joyce Grenfell play dueling bossy types, ready to organize everything in sight. Miles Malleson is the theater box office man. Wilfrid Hyde-White appears as a nightclub waiter. Character acting has always been a largely unsung glory of British film, and there's no pesky rationing of it here. The film's title, by the way, was deemed too arcane for American audiences. When The Demi-Paradise was released in the U.S. in 1945, it was renamed, not to its advantage, Adventure for Two.
by Jay Carr