“Worthy, but rather sluggish, retelling of the life of St. Violette of Szabo.”
This is based on a true story, so we know from the start this is going to end in front of a firing-squad – at least until the Hollywood remake, with a happy ending. Given this, the film still tries to crank up the tension, but as written, Violette Szabo comes off as beyond saintly, without flaws or imperfections. Almost as irritating, she is shown as being mostly inspired by the death of her husband, rather than any innate patriotism (Charlotte Gray similarly portrayed a female SOE agent as passive-reactive). Having said that, the movie generally stays true to the facts, though the poem supposedly written by her husband was actually, in far less romantic reality, by her SOE codemaster – interestingly, the SOE’s name is not mentioned at all. Much of the end is fictionalised; details of her interrogation, for example, are obviously unavailable.
The film does take much too long to get going – it’s almost half-way done before she touches French soil – and most of the exposition, especially early on, is unbearably clunky. However, McKenna is solid as Violette and, despite some questionable accents, so are most of the cast (look out for a young Michael Caine as a soldier on a train asking for water; Gilbert would later direct Alfie and Educating Rita, in addition to three Bond flicks). The characters are stereotypical, particularly Ze Germans, but we should remember this was made in 1958, only 13 years after the war ended, and balance was not an issue; Szabo’s torture at the hands of the Nazis still makes uncomfortable viewing. Rather than watching the movie at 11pm on Thursday night (as we did!), a Sunday afternoon slot should fit this admirably.
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
Star: Virginia McKenna, Paul Scofield, Jack Warner, Denise Grey