Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Astonished Heart

The Astonished Heart
YouTube viewing

I can’t say I knew much about Noel Coward beyond the fact that he wrote one of my favorite movies, Brief Encounter, but then I was enticed to see another movie of his. Sister Celluloid did a post about The Astonished Heart, a film Coward also wrote that not only has actresses from Encounter in it, but it can be looked upon as the flip side to Encounter; at least, that’s how SC pitched it. And as if that wasn’t enough, Coward himself stars in it and even wrote the score!

Encounter was about a married woman, Celia Johnson, tempted to carry out an affair but doesn’t do it in the end. Heart, made five years later and based on one of Coward’s plays, is about a married man, Coward, who does go through with an affair, but it doesn’t work out the way he hopes it should. Johnson is his wife in the film. SC goes into more detail about the film (and even embeds it in her post), but I wanna talk about Coward.

As an actor, he was alright—he talks in a very clipped, rushed manner that sounds unnatural to modern ears. I actually thought he got better the deeper into the story he went and the worse his situation got. SC said she disagreed with those who thought he was miscast; I thought the character, in a twisted kind of way, was miscast. He should’ve been in a Fatal Attraction-style, crime-of-passion thriller. His ultimate fate is grim enough, but I thought it would’ve been cooler if he just went berserk and stalked and attacked Margaret Leighton, the chick he falls for.

Coward was what people used to call a “Renaissance man.” Guy wrote plays, you probably already know that much, but he also wrote screenplays, poetry, short stories, songs (including songs for theater productions), a novel and an autobiography that actually took up three volumes. He trained in dance as a kid, he sung, he acted of course, and he also directed. He won an honorary Oscar during WW2, and you better believe he was knighted.

He was a bit of a character; he had a public image as a dandy with an acerbic wit. Yes, he was gay; in fact his lover, Graham Payn, appears in Heart as his business assistant. Apparently, Coward talked the way he did because as a kid, that made it easier to communicate with his deaf mother. As for his cultural influence as a playwright, composer, etc.... well, just read this.

I prefer Encounter to Heart in the end, though, because I felt like I understood Johnson’s character in the former better than Coward’s in the latter. At first I didn’t believe Coward had the hots for Leighton like he kept claiming. It wasn’t until tension arose between them that I was more convinced—and he’s so straightlaced for much of the film it was hard to feel the depth of his love for her. Johnson in Encounter, on the other hand, is an open book. She narrated the story, but even if she didn’t, her feelings were closer to the surface, even beneath her own layer of British propriety. Maybe it’s those eyes of hers... Plus, Heart, as SC also pointed out, had the annoying habit of jetting us from scene to scene too abruptly.

Joyce Carey, the lady at the train station cafe from Encounter, is also in Heart. She, like Payn, also works for Coward. She was so convincing as a cheeky working-class lady, I admit I didn’t recognize her as a dignified upper-class woman. Liked her.


  1. Have never heard of this film, but you've got me excited to see it. I love Ceilia Johnson in EVERYTHING.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours, Rich. I hope the holiday season is treating you well.

  2. Right back atcha.

    It’s worth looking at as a contrast to BRIEF ENCOUNTER, though I don’t think it’s quite as good. And yeah, Celia Johnson was very good. Maybe I’ll write more about her one day.


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