The Miniver Story opens with shots of London on VE Day, war-torn and weary, but tremendously glad that fighting is over at last. But we are allowed barely a moment to revel in this heartening scene before a metaphorical bomb is dropped: Mrs Kay Miniver, beloved by her friends, her family and moviegoers alike, is terminally ill. As we would imagine, she receives the news with great dignity, in the kind of “grace-under-fire” manner that she so personified in the original film. The disappointing thing about The Miniver Story though is that it doesn’t really go anywhere with this bold revelation. The film lack a narrative arc because Kay tries valiantly to hide her illness and pretend that nothing is amiss. Along the way, we are offered wildly weather-beaten tropes such as the American GI who falls for Kay, and a wayward daughter who resolves to break up a marriage. Overall, the broad and rather insipid strokes of the film leave much to be desired, and while the film is laden with sentiment, rarely is it raw or truly moving.
Yet despite its major and copious flaws, I ended up rather liking The Miniver Story anyway. It’s a terrible movie, yes, but also terribly endearing in its own way. (This is despite the fact that HC Potter – who can only be described as a most directionless director – stands at its head.) Almost everyone involved in The Miniver Story’s production is a familiar face: there’s Sidney Franklin, who produced pretty much every Garson and Pidgeon outing there ever was; George Froeschel, who had a hand in writing those pictures; and Joseph Ruttenberg, who photographed them all. And, of course, we have Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon themselves, appearing in their seventh film together. Taken as whole there’s only one thing that can be said: oh the joy that is studio contracts, right?
In all seriousness though, one can not only recognise a team that clearly knew each other well, but also one that had grown and blossomed into seasoned and skilful artists over a period of many years. No one is striving to “stretch themselves” or to be the “chameleon”; instead, each is doing what he knows he can do best. This rather evolved mindset can be seen in something as overarching as Ruttenberg’s lovely cinematography of post-war Britain. A particularly poignant image that comes to mind is the view of a crumbling edifice seen from Mr Miniver’s window. The sea of grey takes an emotional toll on Clem as he looks out from his office window every day. He starts to resent the world around him, and longs to get away from the country which he once loved. But when his wife leads him to another room in the building, and Ruttenberg shows us a bustling, vibrant city basking in sunlight, we realise that all that was really needed was a literal change of scenery.
The effortlessness of the crew’s collaboration can be recognised in even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of scenes. There is a lovely moment set in the Minivers’ kitchen when acting and writing come together beautifully. For a while now, Clem has been set on moving to South America for a design contract; Kay, of course, is reluctant to leave her home during the last months of her life. However, in the kitchen scene Clem reveals his deeper reasoning: it is his concern for his wife that is the greatest reason for wanting to leave.
“Do you really think you’ve been fooling me?”, Mr Miniver asks his wife. Her heart, and all of ours, skip a beat. We realise that he has not guessed at her illness, but he does understand how hard the war has been for her. He wants her to have a nice hot meal cooked by someone else for a change; he wants her not to worry so much about him and the kids – he wants her to be happy. Walter Pidgeon’s unflinching earnestness plays off Greer Garson’s myriad of emotions – shock, relief and ultimately loving gratitude. It was perhaps only by the time of The Miniver Story that Garson reached the pinnacle of her powers as an actress: the old and, at times, distracting mannerisms are smoothed over, and she plays Mrs Miniver now with a new subtlety and naturalness that make her performances even more timeless. So moved is Kay by Clem’s words in the kitchen that for a moment she turns away to conceal her expression from her husband. In doing so, Greer Garson, the actress, also does the unthinkable: she turns away from the camera. The effect is a moment of intimacy and deep sincerity.
For many, many reasons, The Miniver Story just doesn’t work as a coherent whole. And I am sure that there are plenty of people out there who believe that the film should never have been made in the first place. But for what it’s worth, you may find The Miniver Story quaintly charming if you do decide to give it a chance. Perhaps one of the reasons why the film is so peculiarly resonant for me is that it was made on the cusp of a new era, but clearly harked back to the grand old days of Hollywood which were fast disappearing. Why did Mrs Miniver have to die? Because, in some tragic and weird way, she had to: the refined elegance, the perfect perfection, the quiet fortitude – all that she and the kind of movies she represented was what got audiences through the war. But then the war ended. We moved on and grew up, and no longer did we need Mrs Miniver anymore.