The Man in Grey
plays like a 1930s hollywood melodrama with a lot more explicit bite than usual. The sexual content of the film, such that is, casually taking lovers and an "open" marriage being central to the plot, is far more salacious than your typical Now Voyager
or Mr. Skeffington
films ever allowed themselves to admit to being. Early on, James Mason makes everyone in the audience dislike him when he refers to a wife being nothing more than a "brood mare." The frankness is startling, but it's also startling to see such a spot on class depiction of that era.
Structurally, the film takes a tact not uncommon to these unrequited love stories of using bookends to
have a future generation creepily consummate the relationship for the poor lovers. Here we have a ten minute prologue in an auction, the Rohan family estate is being liquidated as the last son died in Dunkirk, and his surviving, single sister couldn't possibly be allowed to own property (!) She is seated next to an ass who wants to bid on some memorabilia for his mother, who believes an old romantic story about their family's connection to the Rohan's. the final scene returns us to the present, with the two modern day iterations walking into the sunset together.
So we naturally fly back in time to learn all about that box of memorabilia, which is the main body of the film, we open at a girl's school, a snowball fight is going on and two girls are about to arrive at school for the term. The first is a dark girl, Hester, she's had a troublesome past and there's some exchange of favors that has resulted in her being at the school with the rich girls, she's to be trained as a junior teacher, not be a student, and she clearly resents all the rich girl flouncing and comraderie. Right on her heels is Clarissa, our nominal protagonist, although she does not explain it all, she's rather clueless about everything, but tremendously good hearted and winning. She immediately pledges her affection and friendship to Hester despite the latter's rudeness and definite rejection of these overtures. Clarissa seems not to notice and decides she is her dearest and bestest friend in the world in spite of all this.
So eventually, we get to a ball and meet the titular character, the above mentioned James Mason in a deliciously cruel and nasty performance. Clarissa is married off to him and has a rather miserable time of it. He keeps her separated from him and them both from their child, he wants nothing to do with a family other than the heir she produced and she's useless to him.
The final piece of the plot drops into place about forty five minutes in, when Rokeby accosts Clarissa's carriage on the road at night, one thinks he is a highwayman. But the scallywag is merely playing, in fact he's playing Othello in the play Clarissa is going to see, and who is Desdemona but Hester, of course. With some brief finagling, all of the quadrangle are living together in the Rohan estate and things play out as they must in a melodrama, with an escalated ending that is somewhat surprising in it's unflinching finality.
The performances are stellar and the script is sharp and fairly witty. The frankness of the 'arrangement' is rather startling, but the film seems to be held back mostly by keeping Clarissa's character imprisoned within the saintly (and ignorant) confines of being a good girl. If she were written just a little bit more self aware--as Hester is--the film would not feel so horribly unbalanced. That said it's a very fun film, better than most of the hollywood entries within the female melodrama genre. And I may be mistaken, bu the plot is very close to the recent Keira Knightly awards vehicle, The Duchess
, is it a remake or just an incredibly similar story and characters?