Gone to Earth represents the confluence of three of the most important elements in my mental universe: Powell & Pressburger, Jennifer Jones, and (proto-)animal rights (linked–as in the novella I’m launching tonight!–to a critiique of patriarchy). So don’t expect anything resembling objectivity from me on this one (or at any time, really–I hate prescriptive criticism, and I don’t practice it!)
But I suppose we can start by praising something that even the film’s detractors (and they are legion) agree upon–the cinematography by Christopher Challis. I think the above image speaks for itself, no?
If not–how ’bout this one?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does a better job of conveying the frankly mystical connection that human beings have to the landscape of their chosen home (Melville called it the “all-feeling”), WITHOUT sentimentalizing it. Those woods are lovely, dark and deep–and so are the characters who inhabit the area, and the narrative.
The film may travel under the guise of a mid-Victorian melodrama, but its guts are deeply existentialist. For me, the key to reading Gone to Earth is the double-character of Hazel (JJ)/Foxy. There’s no question that Hazel’s extraordinary flight across the hunting grounds is intended to recall the scene of Eliza and her baby on the ice floes (in Uncle Tom’s Cabin)–but it’s the differences that matter.
Hazel castigates Squire (squire!) Reddin (Farrar) for “having blood on him,” but she and her surrogate child aren’t blameless either–on several occasions, we see Foxy invading the chicken coop, and Hazel herself bites into a drumstick, early in the narrative. These two are implicated in an economy of horrific violence, just like everyone else in our world. Not for a moment is the protagonist presented as “defenseless,” in classic melodramatic terms. Jennifer Jones is pretty much incapable of playing a weak human being anyway–and her oeuvre, as a whole, constitutes one of the most sweeping feminist critiques of the 20th century. In almost every one of her films, her natural authority and vivacity (Foxy’s “woof”) are warped by patriarchal discourse. Her protean spirit is NEVER broken, but is always in danger of being channeled in an unproductive direction. Often, the best the world has to offer her is an escape hatch–as here, when all of her hopes go down the drain, at the film’s startling conclusion. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that, because Hazel refused to dive into the foxhole of a prescribed gender role, she and her fox have no place to go but into a black hole in the narrative (and in the culture). That’s an extraordinarily damning statement–and one that’s pretty hard to disagree with.
And yet–it’s a beautiful world, and there are many good things in it–worth desiring. “Keep yourself to yourself”–that’s what Hazel’s mother recommended–and it sounds like good advice, but it’s not a sound philosophy. Powell and Pressburger are NOT ascetics. They treated that life option with a great deal of dignity in Black Narcissus (in the figure of the holy man–who successfully ignores the landscape–but at what cost?), but in Gone to Earth the closest analogue is Reddin’s evil-minded servant (a cousin of Wuthering Heights‘ Joseph):
Renunciation is explicitly renounced by the narrative–and I think Edward (Cyril Cusack), is absolutely correct when he takes the blame for setting the narrative’s tragic chain of events into motion by offering Hazel a marriage without sex. Yes, she calls him “her soul”–and what she really means is that she trusts him to take care of her real soul–Foxy… but, again, at what cost? Foxy’s cute little fox house (like the minister’s own cottage–complete with colonized mother), is clearly a prison of sorts. And it’s to Edward’s credit that he comes to understand his role as jailer–after a violent fit causes this knowledge to bubble up into his conscious mind…
But how about David Farrar’s stock “evil squire” Reddin?
Well you know, I’d say if you had invested in that stock, you’d have lost all of your money by the end of the film. Reddin is, in fact, the site of the film’s most ingenious (and even subtly hopeful) subterfuge. The character’s inconsistent behaviour reminds us that patriarchy imposes roles upon MEN too. He’s a violent sleezeball, there’s no question about that–but once he and Hazel consummate their strange passion (and here I want to disagree–despite the undeniable surface similarities, introduced in order to pull us into the skewed gender paradigm of Harlequin style romance–with critics who claim that this relationship depends upon Gone With the Wind-style “women want to be raped” foundations… Jennifer Jones is not Vivian Leigh–and she is NEVER cowed/overpowered by Farrar in this film… she does respond to his clearly focused desire–I fervently believe that every human being wants to be desired–but when she finally embraces him, it’s on her own terms), he exhibits none of the qualities of his melodramatic genus–when the pair are alone…
Unfortunately, for all concerned, he reverts to type when society, in the form of Edward, invades the sanctum:
In one split second–and this atmospheric jump cut is the key to the film’s critique of the genre it ostensibly participates in–the Squire appears to remember that he is supposed to be the villain of the piece, and, as Shelley (in The Masque of Anarchy) would put it, adopts the mask of Castlereagh:
“…One by one, and two by two
He tossed them human [and Foxy] hearts to chew”
The film presents social existence as a terrible fox hunt through a lush countryside–in which our roles are preordained by economic and gender imperatives. This is perhaps most shockingly dramatized by Hazel’s refusal to give up the role of prey to the hounds, when the Squire (outfitted in the gestapo outfit of the huntsman) makes a sincere last ditch attempt to pull Foxy out of her arms, to safety… And yet, the very fact that we observe moments of ontological tenderness between these overdetermined stock characters seems to suggest that this tragedy (and the one we are currently living together) might have (and, for us, might still?) ended differently…
good afternoon friends!