It’s easy to start reaching for Orson Welles parallels when ‘Enchantment’ (1948) begins as the cinematography is by Gregg Toland and, much like Welles’ ‘Ambersons’, the film starts with a face-fronting view of a family home accompanied by a voice over and an almost crippling nostalgia for the past. But soon, like years falling away, we see what is really going on here, and it is something quite touching.
The home is that General Rollo Dane (David Niven), an old man who lives alone in London except for his servant. One day a young American servicewoman, Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes), comes to stay with him. Grizel’s been posted to England to help the war effort and Rollo is her granduncle. Unable to turn away family this lonely man, who is obviously in possession of a shattered and broken heart, grudgingly allows her to stay.
Gradually Grizel starts to discover more about the ghosts of the past that haunt both the Dane house and Rollo’s heart as it transpires that years ago, when Rollo was a young boy, his family took in a little girl by the name of Lark (Teresa Wright) after both her parents were killed. Growing up together Rollo and Lark become close, much to the jealousy of Rollo’s manipulative sister, and as the years go by it seems as though romance is blossoming between the two.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Grizel meets a dashing U.S. pilot (Farley Granger) who has been injured in combat (although I suspect he is lying simply as an excuse to get Grizel to keep putting her hand in his pockets for his cigarettes) but it’s soon not long before their romance is threatened by his return to active service. Likewise, by flashing back in time, we see Lark and Rollo’s romance being potentially thwarted by Afghanistan as well as Rollo’s conniving sibling.
And so a love story of the past has the chance to inform, and maybe even save, a love story in the present.
Putting it like that ‘Enchantment’ could come across as stiff melodrama in danger of drowning in its own syrupy discharges of pathos. And it sort of is for the first 45 minutes or so, playing out with few surprises and following a well worn tear-jerking path.
A few things gradually started pulling me in though. For one, ‘Enchantment’ is gorgeously photographed with a real, deep sense of visual beauty. Not only that but the way director Irving Reis and cinematographer Toland “dissolve” in-camera between past and present is technically impressive and, as the film goes on, gradually adds genuine emotional weight to the movie every time it does so. Each moment we are sucked into the past the worry slowly starts building as to what might, or HAS, happened.
Also the acting is wonderful. Indeed it wasn’t until the film was over halfway through that I realised that David Niven was playing the older version of Rollo as well as his younger self. It’s achieved through make-up, lighting and Niven modulating his voice (I never knew Niven could sound like that) and is totally convincing and, ultimately, heartbreaking. The younger Dane kids also give great performances with the only weak spot being a somewhat wet Farley Granger.
Yet the most captivating aspect is how the two love stories sympathetically resonate and harmonise with each other across the years. The film was based on a book called ‘A Fugue in Time’ and, despite being a somewhat pretentious title, ‘Enchantment’ fully delivers on that name as the more it weaves everything together the clearer we see the whole picture until, by the end, I was really rather touched and a little tearful.
Made in 1948 ‘Enchantment’ is one of those films that would’ve spoken with a ringing clarity to those coming out from a murderous war; to people who had lost loved ones, lost family or had never had the chance to tell someone going away, maybe forever, that they were loved. In that context parts of ‘Enchantment’ are devastating whilst the central message of not wasting time is universal.
‘Enchantment’ isn’t quite a masterpiece but it is an extremely well crafted, visually gorgeous and sophistically constructed tale of romance, loss and how death, because of its finality, is also the most important reason to tell someone how much you love them. We aren’t given much time on this planet but we do, thank god, at least have time enough for that. The only real tragedy would be to not take the chance because it might never come again. We never quite know what are the moments that matter.