The Good Soldier (1981)

“This is the most atrocious thing you’ve done in your whole atrocious life.”

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is one of my favourite novels, but it presents a formidable challenge to attempt to translate the novel to the screen. These challenges are all too evident in the British Granada television version recently released on DVD.

The plot concerns two couples–one British: Edward and Leonora Ashburnham (Jeremy Brett & Susan Fleetwood) and one American: John and Florence Dowell (Robin Ellis & Vickery Turner). Since these two married couples are about the same age and share the same social circumstances, they strike up a relationship, and they meet periodically in a German spa town over the course of nine years.

If you are used to BBC quality drama, and hope to find it here, then I suspect you may be disappointed. (The Good Soldier is more alone the lines of the early Merchant-Ivory versions of Henry James’s novels The Bostonians and The Europeans.) The picture isn’t particularly clear (looks more like VHS quality), and while the sets look authentic and elegant, some of the acting is less-than-stellar. Edward Ashburnham, for example, is supposed to be the epitome of the ‘perfect English gentleman’, and as a former military man, he restrains his emotions and is seemingly correct in all his actions. Unfortunately, here Ashburnham’s character is given such a ‘stiff upper lip’ his performance is wooden and dull. Florence comes across as a bit of a twerp, and all the finer, subtler nuances of the novel are absent. Some of the accents are poor.

In addition, the film suffers from poor editing. The story flashes back and forth in time as key events are revealed, but unfortunately, these flashes–which are often jarring–make the story less-than-coherent at times. The novel unfolds beautifully and levels of deception are gradually revealed to the reader as John, who is a classic example of the unreliable narrator, tells his story. This element is lost in the film version, and instead what is left is a fairly tepid tale of deception. As a result, the only really interesting character in the film is Leonora–a woman’s whose complicated motives corrode everyone’s lives. From director Kevin Billington.

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Filed under British, Drama

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