There is something about the 1947-49 period of Ealing production that speaks to the renewed and widened sense of purpose that Michael Balcon wrote about in the post-war period. The Loves of Joanna Godden sits confidently alongside other projects - including the other period dramas and adaptations Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) - while also engaging with an emerging theme within Ealing, around female issues, and with stronger female characters at the centre of their narratives. Here, as in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), that strong female presence is Googie Withers, seemingly Ealing's go-to actress for such roles.
Although its ends with a predictable heterosexual resolution, the bulk of the film is a much more interesting exploration of a strong independent woman trying to run her family farm, in a world (Romney Marsh, in Kent) and time (1905) where such things were shocking and unfamiliar. Joanna Godden (Withers) inherits Baynham Farm from her father, whose will assumes she will marry her neighbouring farmer and friend Arthur Alce (John McCallum). Instead, Joanna insists she will run the farm herself stating she'd 'like to meet the man who wouldn't take orders from me.' The film explores her successes and failures, her shifting attitudes to life (from initially describing her pregnant maid as a 'slut' to supporting her desire to have the baby, even if out of wedlock), the reaction of the locals to her decisions (who refer to Joanna as 'a filly that ain't never been properly broke in'), and the men she lets into her life.
The film explores three central relationships: Jo and Arthur; Jo and Martin Trevor (Derek Bond), another local farmer who falls for her; and Jo and her younger sister Ellen (Jean Kent). The latter falls away for much of the story, as Ellen is sent away to an expensive boarding school, but Ellen's return does create sparks between the sisters and repositions the latter third of the film as an exploration of different kinds of female character and performance. Ellen's upbringing turns here into a prim and snobbish character who rejects the 'awfully old fashioned' furniture, lifestyle and location of her sister's existence. While the film spans a number of years, it is clear that Jo shifts from her eagerness to change everything about the farm (how they rear sheep, what price to sell for, whether to dig up land) to a more acceptable view of the farm's heritage (she has saved her father's old clock, despite the fact it doesn't work) - Ellen is both a riposte to this (she mocks such heritage) and a reminder of Jo's changing view. That is not to say that Jo is tamed by her experience but that the next generation represented by Ellen is more interested in consumerism than tradition, in finding a man who can buy her shiny things rather than making her own way in the world (whether this is a comment about the post-war world, or an prescient view of what the 1950s might bring, is unclear). And, in terms of the film, this generation gap is a little hampered by casting Jean Kent to play Ellen in both younger and older periods. In her late 20s, she never looks like the teenager she is supposed to be - which undermines the supposed generational gap that grows between Ellen and Jo (Kent and Withers were only four years apart in age, and make-up and costume can only disguise so much of that).
Visually, the film uses its landscape shots to construct and evoke a strong sense of place. Filmed on location in Romney Marsh, the desolate setting adds to the isolation of the characters, and stresses the uncertainty of rural life, where even an apparently innocent trip to the seaside puts the characters at the mercy of nature. Two scenes with Jo and Martin point to the film's fascination with landscape, and its attempt to construct filmic space as both commonplace and mystical. Martin is fascinating by Jo, and is Arthur's main rival for her affections. At one point, they sit and look over the marsh, which Jo has little regard for, seeing it only as flat fields and ditches. Martin, however, describes the light on the marsh as 'the most beautiful... in the world' - and the film breaks off into a significant montage of geese taking off, clouds, beach and waves, solitary trees silhouetted against the sky, wheat blowing in the wind, dappled light all the way to the horizon. Given the landscape has been tough and unyielding until this stage (Jo's struggles with the farm are all about the land, and nature, not responding to her plans and changes), here the film presents it as romantic and mystical - and presents Martin as Jo's gateway to this enhanced view of the world. Their romance is positioned as one that opens Jo's eyes to an increased love of her land.
But what nature gives, it also takes away: a trip to the beach at Dungeness is more visually wary of nature and suggests Jo and Martin's uncertainty in a non-Marsh landscape. Here, almost all the establishing shots of landscape are skewed, tilted: diagonal raked shores of a pebble beach, hills of shale and stone, only a stalwart lighthouse retains any horizontal solidity (perhaps appropriate, given it is a structure that signals danger: a message Jo and Martin do not understand). Then, from long shots to close-ups: as Martin goes into the sea for a swim, the camera focuses on Jo's face, as she lies back on the pebbles. Here, the performance is all: a series of frowns, tightening of closed eyes, head rolling side to side, sleep-talking... and then, awake, the sudden realisation that Martin has not returned, a solitary towel floating at the shoreline. Rather than make Martin's death a visual spectacle, the film focuses on the intimate, based around Jo's subconscious fears becoming real.
All this focus rather ignores the relationship between Jo and Arthur, but it is the most traditional of the three: even when Arthur marries Ellen, the Hardy-esque nature of the plot and the lingering glances older (and wealthier) Harry Trevor (Henry Mollison) gives Ellen suggest the final narrative events. Yet the acceptable and expected pairing off of Jo and Arthur doesn't negate the strong exploration of female independence, sexuality and emotional uncertainty that gives the film its real power.
[The Loves of Joanna Godden is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal UK]
Next time, more Googie in her final Ealing film, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston