You know what they say: Go Big or Go Home.
The British film, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), is a perfect example – a costume drama about a Doomed Love Affair. But it’s also a film about Political Intrigue, Waging War, and trading favours for Personal Gain.
That’s a lot of business to conduct in a 96-minute film, and it could’ve easily become a cringing melodrama. However, filmmakers sidestep this Trap by creating a story set in the 17th century, and employing metres of fabric. The result is a gorgeous film with provocative characters.
It also stars Stewart Granger. Now, before we go any further, we must disclose our aversion to him.
Stewart G. was a British stage/film actor who gained popularity during WWII. In 1949, he signed a contract with MGM and worked in Hollywood for many years.
Stewart G. was certainly handsome, and he wasn’t an actor without emotional depth. Indeed, there are scenes in Saraband for Dead Lovers where he nearly breaks your heart … yet … these are also scenes in which Stewart G. is silent. It’s when he speaks that he Ruins the Mood; in our opinion, he delivers dialogue like he’s chewing out an inept employee.
Nonetheless, in this film he’s well cast as an amoral man who strives to Do Right by the love of his life (Joan Greenwood), a woman in a miserable marriage.
As mentioned, the story takes place in the late 1600s, in one of the independent states we now know as Germany. It follows the political career of George Louis (Peter Bull), who, through various political and legal wranglings, becomes George I of Great Britain in 1698.
He’s also an unfaithful husband to Greenwood, whom he detests. Theirs is more of a business contract than a marriage: She has Money and he has Power.
There’s a surprising focus on women in this film, given the plot features a future king, and much attention is paid to Double Standards. Coupled with voluminous 17th century fashions, we’re subtly reminded some things may not have changed very much over the ensuing centuries.
For example, look at the marriage between Bull and Greenwood. He has multiple affairs, but when she tells her mother-in-law (Françoise Rosay) that she wants A Little Fun, Rosay rebukes her. It’s Greenwood’s job to uphold the honour of their family, says Rosay, so Smarten Up.
Yet, later in the film, we see inside Rosay’s character, a woman forced by circumstances to become a hardened realist. “There is much happiness in this world,” she says. “The secret is to abandon hope of it.”
Perhaps the most cunning woman here is Flora Robson, a courtesan and power broker. She orchestrates deals on behalf of her, ahem, friends for a cut of the profits. But she, too, shows us what she’s Up Against: She’s in her 40s, and her beauty is draining away. Therefore, the transactions she makes now must be lucrative enough to fund her comfortable retirement.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a saraband is “a stately court dance of the 17th and 18th centuries resembling the minuet”.
Saraband for Dead Lovers is based on the 1935 novel by Helen Simpson, which depicts the true (or not) romance between Philip Christoph von Königsmarck and Sophia Dorothea of Celle, the wife of the future George I.
The film itself won an Oscar for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color. It was produced by Ealing Studios, who normally produced comedies, but this time they hoped to give rival Gainsborough Studios a Run for their Money. This was Ealing’s first film to be shot in colour, but, alas, it was not a commercial success.
The costumes were designed by Georges K. Benda and Anthony Mendleson. (Mendleson would be nominated for two more Oscars for costume design, in 1972 and 1976.) The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired some of these costumes for the Museum of the Moving Image in 2015.
Although Saraband for Dead Lovers isn’t well known, we think it’s a Must See. We hope you’ll have the chance to watch it – and if you ever experience it on the big screen, we’ll be Most Envious.
This post is part of THE COSTUME DRAMA BLOGATHON, hosted by Moon in Gemini.
Saraband for Dead Lovers: starring Stewart Granger, Joan Greenwood, Flora Robson. Directed by Basil Deardon. Written by John Dighton & Alexander Mackendrick. Ealing Studios, 1948, Technicolor, 96 mins.