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Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)


Main image of Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)
35mm, Technicolor, 96 mins
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayJohn Dighton
 Alexander Mackendrick
Novel byHelen Simpson
MusicAlan Rawsthorne

Cast: Stewart Granger (Konigsmark); Joan Greenwood (Sophie-Dorothea); Flora Robson (Countess Platen); Françoise Rosay (The Electress Sophie); Barbara Leake (Maria); Miles Malleson (Lord Of Misrule)

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Sophie-Dorothea, wife of the future George I of England, unwisely falls in love with Count Philip von Königsmark, a Swedish soldier of fortune.

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In the late 1940s the Rank Organisation, pursuing the British film industry's perennial mirage of 'breaking into the American market', launched several big-budget prestige productions across the Atlantic. Against studio head Michael Balcon's better judgment, Ealing was induced to join in, tempted by some additional funding. The result was the studio's first colour film, and its most expensive venture. It was also Ealing's biggest box-office failure.

A lavish costume drama adapted from a romantic novel and based (fairly loosely) on historical events, Saraband for Dead Lovers seems more the kind of subject usually tackled by Rank's subsidiary Gainsborough - a similarity underlined by the casting of Gainsborough's top male star at the time, Stewart Granger, in the lead. Aware of this, Michael Relph, the film's producer and art director, deliberately set out to make "a serious historical film, as opposed to the Gainsborough Wicked Lady sort of thing". Which is perhaps where Saraband goes wrong. The performances - even that of the usually delectable Joan Greenwood - feel constrained by the formality of the script. A touch more swashbuckling gusto might have been just what was needed to rescue it from solemnity.

Visually, though, the film looks consistently superb. Atmospheric use is made of the Prague locations while the interiors, all dark rich reds and browns, evoke the stiflingly oppressive conventions of the Hanoverian court. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, shooting in colour for the first time, deliberately ignored all the strictures laid down by the Technicolor rule-book. "One was told to light everything flat, which was anathema to me, so I treated it exactly like black-and-white and achieved dark, shadowy areas." His recalcitrance paid off, especially in the menacing chiaroscuro of the final sword-fight. Basil Dearden isn't usually thought of as a virtuoso director, but the mounting hysteria of the carnival sequence, with the jump-cuts and flash-pans crisply edited to the rhythm of Alan Rawsthorne's pounding score, makes for an exhilarating display of classic fast montage.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film, though, is that it was made under Michael Balcon's auspices. A staunch patriot, Balcon was always deeply respectful of the British royal family. Yet Saraband continually emphasises the corruption, cruelty and naked ambition of the House of Hanover, and portrays the future King George I of England as a crude, licentious bully. No wonder it failed to be chosen for that year's Royal Command Performance.

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
1. An unwelcome birthday gift (1:54)
2. Courage and stupidity (3:01)
3. Bad news (1:21)
4. Cat and mouse (2:36)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Balcon, Jill (1925-2009)
Danischewsky, Monja (1911-1994)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)
Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Quayle, Anthony (1913-1989)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Robson, Flora (1902-1984)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)