Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
William Wyler's 1942 drama Mrs. Miniver is a rousing piece of wartime propaganda. The earnest and heartfelt family story has a very specific and extremely obvious purpose, and yet it still has the ability to engage and move audiences willing to check their cynicism at the door. Scratch that. That may be underestimating Mrs. Miniver's considerable personal charms. We need not change before entering the theater. The film, like its titular character, may rather have the power to obliterate one's cynicism and turn us all into true believers, much the way the lady herself causes the old woman to drop her selfish pretentions at the flower show midway through the picture.
Greer Garson gives an Oscar-winning performance as Kay Miniver, upper-middle-class mother of three. Hers is a sensitive portrayal, meant to illustrate the hidden strengths of British women and the determination and fortitude required in a time of war. Based on a book of essays by Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver sets up a none-too-subtle contrast between pre-War living and the serious responsibilities of every citizen when their country is in conflict. It opens in 1939, with Kay buying a new hat and fearing telling her husband, an architect, of its cost. Little does she know that hubby Clem (Walter Pidgeon) bought a fancy car well outside his price range. "What's money for," he asks, if not to blow on extravagant things.
This tune soon changes. War is declared not long after, and the Minivers' idealistic first born, Vin (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force. He also becomes engaged to Carol Belden (Theresa Wright, a year before Shadow of a Doubt), granddaughter to the town matriarch, the upper-class snob Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). The romance blossoms (pardon the pun) out of a conflict between the two families. The beloved Ms. Miniver inspired the local station master, Ballard (Henry Travers), to enter the village's annual flower competition, and he has named his prize rose for her. Lady Beldon has won the championship cup for the last three decades unopposed, and she's none too happy about the competition. The squabble over a silver trophy seems frivolous in the face of world destruction.
Except it's not really, and that's part of the point of Mrs. Miniver. Life must carry on. Young people should marry, and though the men and women who stay behind should protect the home front, they must also continue with everything their enlisted men are fighting to protect. This is what Garson's Kay Miniver is really a symbol of: the brave face of life under the shadow of death. It's a mother's duty to care for her young, to smile through the heartache, and push forward with every reserve she has.
Mrs. Miniver has an episodic narrative, one that took audiences seeing it in its original run from their very recent past right up to their actual present. Amidst air raids, there are side excursions. Clem Miniver takes part in a home guard rescue at Dunkirk, while his wife stays home and captures a downed German soldier (Helmut Dantine), showing herself as the better person as she cares for his wounds moments after he held a gun on her. (The film takes the high road, too, avoiding caricaturing the enemy, or even resorting to extreme racial epithets to describe the opposing forces.) And, of course, there is the joy of the village festival, the much contested flower show. Tragedy follows almost immediately after, but it serves to remind everyone that there is a reason the world is taking up arms against the Nazis.
Wyler is adept at all aspects of his sprawling story. The opening scenes humorously satirize the complacency of modern living, and they are a far cry from the terrifying air raid sequence, when bombs hit a little too close to the Miniver home. While we don't really see combat up close, its presence in the distance, either as sound effects or the sight of fires burning on the horizon, serves as sufficient backdrop. The common terror most British citizens must have been feeling is shared without the filmmaker overselling it, and Mrs. Miniver managed to not only stir the sympathies of moviegoers across the ocean, but it continues to do so across time. A job well done is well done forever; Mrs. Miniver is still inspiring and effective. Garson gives the performance of a lifetime, creating a character that will remain meaningful over many more.
I am quite impressed with MGM's AVC-encoded transfer for Mrs. Miniver (1080p; 1.37:1 aspect ratio). I had not seen this film prior to this viewing, and based on the evidence here, a good con man could have convinced me it wasn't a movie that was more than 70 years old, but a current homage to wartime motion pictures. The black-and-white picture is spotless, with sharp resolution, an incredible level of detail, and strong balance between light and shade. Nothing here looks digitally fussed with, the grain is natural and there are no digital glitches that I noticed. Truly one of the best HD upgrades for a classic film I've seen.
The original English soundtrack for Mrs. Miniver has been given a solid mono DTS-HD Master Audio remix. The volume level is good, with the different elements being modulated properly, so that music sounds strong but dialogue is never lost. I heard no evidence of hiss, distortion, or crackles. (There is one part at about 70 minutes into the picture when the German soldier in Miniver's kitchen appears to be saying something, but there is no dialogue to be heard; I don't think this is an audio dropout on the disc, but a flaw in the film, particularly given the other continuity errors in the sequence.)
French and two alternate Spanish tracks are offered in 1.0, as well as subtitles in both languages and English Closed Captioning.
Mrs. Miniver-specific extras are the theatrical trailer and a newsreel piece featuring a portion of Greer Garson's Oscar acceptance speech when she won for her role in the film.
Rounding out the package, MGM has provided three wartime short subjects, one animated and two live-action. The cartoon is an entertaining Tex Avery comedy called "Blitz Wolf," pitting the Three Little Pigs against Adolph Wolf. The live-action pieces have aged less impressively, but are interesting as examples of unabashed propaganda (if you think any part of Mrs. Miniver lacks subtlety, then brace yourself). Both clock in at around 20 minutes. "Mr. Blabbermouth!" takes a slightly humorous approach to encouraging folks not to pulicly indulge in rumors or gossip about the U.S. and its involvement in WWII. "For the Common Defense" is part of the Crime Does Not Pay series, showing how law enforcement can cooperate across borders with our nearby allies--in this case, Chile.
Highly Recommended. William Wyler creates a moving wartime family drama in Mrs. Miniver, a transcendent piece of motion picture propaganda, one that puts a very human face on World War II. Set in England at the start of the global conflict, the film chronicles the efforts of the Miniver family to do their part while also carrying on with their lives as normal as they can. Greer Garson leads the film as the title character, a strong woman whose inner strength allows for a calming exterior. Her inherent goodness acts as a beacon of hope even as everything seemingly crumbles around her. Despite its age, Mrs. Miniver has lost none of its meaning. Its concerns are timeless. (As opposed to say, the heavy-handed pieces included here as extras.) MGM treats Mrs. Miniver with all the respect it's due, bringing the 1942 classic to high-definition Blu-Ray via a stunning transfer, one that makes the seventy-year-old film look like it's fresh out of the can.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.