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An 18th Century costume drama typical of postwar British cinema, Esther Waters (1948) marks the first lead role for esteemed Dirk Bogarde, originally cast here as a supporting player but stepping in after the departure of leading man Stewart Granger. Bogarde stars as William Latch, a rambunctious footman at a country estate who dreams of opening his own pub and buying a manor of his own. He quickly sets his sights on Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan), a prim and conservative servant girl with whom he strikes up an intimate relationship. However, his wandering eye for the boss' blonde, stuck-up daughter ultimately leads to his abandonment of Esther, who departs her job and, learning her mother has died, undertakes a stint at the workhouse where she gives birth to William's child. Six years later, despite the advances of another suitor willing to take on her and the child, Esther reunites with William again and, despite considerable initial animosity, their relationship resumes and leads to marriage. However, destiny has several unpleasant surprises in store for the young couple.
Along with the extraordinarily lavish and faithful recreations of Victorian derby racing which appear in the final third, much of Esther Waters's appeal lies in watching the 27-year-old Bogarde transform over the course of the script from a fiery young cad to a dapper businessman (complete with eye-catching dandy clothing) to an older, dangerously ill mustachioed husband. This was also the first of his collaborations with director Ian Dalrymple (who won an Academy Award for co-writing Pygmalion  and co-helmed this film with prolific production designer Peter Proud), the owner of the film's production company, Wessex Film Productions Ltd. The partnership with Bogarde continued with the superior W. Somerset Maugham anthology Quartet (1948) and the lesser-known Once a Jolly Swagman (1949), while Bogarde made numerous future films with Rank while also venturing to other British studios like Ealing and Gainsborough for modest but acclaimed films such as The Blue Lamp (1950) and So Long at the Fair (1950). However, it wasn't until six years later that he achieved full-fledged stardom with the smash comedy Doctor in the House (1954) (for which he made four sequels) and the brooding drama The Sleeping Tiger (1954) which paired him for the first time with his most acclaimed creative partner, Joseph Losey.
Easily commanding the film despite being off screen for a fair portion of the running time, Bogarde may have still been young during shooting but already possessed a great deal of life experience from which to draw. An accomplished commercial artist, stage actor, and writer, he had already served as a major in the military during World War II, a four-year tour of duty he later recounted in his extremely detailed autobiographies. Incidentally, though his character is identified nowhere in the credits, Bogarde's younger brother Gareth is reputedly the actor playing William and Esther's adolescent son in the final scene.
Bogarde's Irish-born co-star, Kathleen Ryan, has less of a chance to impress in this film due to the essential prudishness and naivet of her character, though the controversial theme of an abandoned, unwed mother was perhaps enough to still carry audience sympathy at the time. Unlike Bogarde, Ryan had a very short career, making her debut the year before with Carol Reed's acclaimed 1947 feature Odd Man Out alongside James Mason and Cyril Cusack (who also appears in Esther Waters as Fred). However, she essentially retired from the screen a decade later after only a handful of roles and died in her homeland in 1985.
Though the film was treated as an average programmer and has seldom been revived since, it also holds a place in history as the first and, to date, only cinematic adaptation of a novel by George Moore, an influential Irish novelist and art critic whose extreme dedication to realism influenced many modernist writers like James Joyce. Curiously, Esther Waters (originally published in 1894) was later revived in the '60s and '70s as British miniseries, though both are now far more obscure than this first adaptation. However, the author's more controversial and explicit works such as A Modern Lover and A Mummer's Wife have yet to find an audience outside of literary circles.
Producers: Ian Dalrymple, Peter Proud
Directors: Ian Dalrymple, Peter Proud
Screenplay: Michael Gordon, William Rose; Gerard Tyrell (additional dialogue); George Moore(novel)
Cinematography: H.E. Fowle, C.M. Pennington-Richards
Art Direction: Fred Pusey
Music: Dr. Gordon Jacob
Film Editing: Brereton Porter
Cast: Kathleen Ryan (Esther Waters), Dirk Bogarde (William Latch), Cyril Cusack (Fred), Ivor Barnard (Randal), Fay Compton (Mrs. Barfield), Margaret Diamond (Sarah), Morland Graham (Ketley), Mary Clare (Mrs. Latch).
By Nathaniel Thompson