In fact, until the appearance of this relatively unsung Russian actress, all of the above might easily have remained permanently stuck at the level of “stodgy melodrama.” Instead, we suddenly find ourselves with a film about work, disablement, and rehabilitation capable of sparking serious reflections on how any of us – adults and children, men, and women – survive life’s more serious challenges.
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Now in her mid-seventies, Mandy Miller was one of Britain’s best-loved child actors. For those who still remember her as the deaf girl in Mandy/Crash of Silence (Alexander Mackendrick, 1952), there’s an interesting reminder of her appeal in Dance Little Lady (Val Guest, 1954).
In the later scenario there’s none of the inner darkness of a profoundly deaf and profoundly unhappy child; but, as balletomane Jill Gordon, Miller is once again the daughter of unhappy parents.
In Mandy, an absentee husband/father (Terence Morgan) succumbs to paranoias about another man – the child’s speech therapist (Jack Hawkins). In Dance Little Lady, a level-headed wife/mother (Mai Zetterling) seems almost paralysed by her husband’s fascination with the thoroughly real other woman (Eunice Gayson).
Between the ballerina mother and her daughter there’s a secure if understated bond that has resulted in the child’s wish to be a dancer too. So, despite the machinations of another absentee husband/father (Terence Morgan again!), the parenting this time is more lamely distracted than emotionally burdensome. Indeed, by the standards of the day and for a child with no special needs, Jill’s home is “pleasant” enough.
Nevertheless, her father’s blind irresponsibility becomes more and more pronounced, leading to a car crash that ends her mother’s career. At this point, the film seems ready to whitewash all this chronically destructive maleness, perhaps to help sell a very 1950s message about “soldiering on” – an attitude that, in reality, meant leaving some poor female to carry on suffering in silence.
Mai Zetterling’s character Nina will, indeed, be robbed of her dancing career, and her husband will find it easy enough to overcome this setback by exploiting the other woman’s hard work and talent. But in an important twist of the plot, Jill’s mother is encouraged to remain in the ballet world by becoming a teacher.
This involves an extraordinary cameo from St. Petersburg actress Ina De La Haye as Madame Bayanova, Nina Gordon’s own former instructor. Bayanova does receive some rather patronising backing from John Ransome, the child-friendly surgeon who has been treating Mrs. Gordon. But the older woman continues to inspire her ex-pupil to go into teaching, meanwhile dealing firmly enough with doctors who enjoy admiration for their successes while burying their mistakes!
In fact, until the appearance of this relatively unsung Russian actress, all of the above might easily have remained permanently stuck at the level of “stodgy melodrama.” Instead, we suddenly find ourselves with a film about work, disablement, and rehabilitation capable of sparking serious reflections on how any of us – adults and children, men and women – survive life’s more serious challenges.
Ultimately, De La Haye’s role – and especially her performance – leads to a scene in a ballet rehearsal room that seems to have been mysteriously posted back from our own time. In it Mandy Miller’s character, Jill, steps confidently into the role of motivational teacher – a role that the gauntly handsome doctor and the beautifully distracted mother have just vacated, even though not yet officially allowed the distraction of falling in love.
Jill’s student is a boy of her own age whose recovery from a leg injury is not going well. He grumbles and holds back nervously, always gripping the shoulder-crutch to which he’s evidently become welded. Under Jill’s friendly but firm instruction, he attempts a move that causes him to fall flat on his face. At this the girl, almost shouting, channels Madame Bayanova: If you don’t fall down you’re not doing it right!
Genres and eras, age and gender stereotypes and a lot more besides are at this moment all smashed gloriously out of the park. Forget Mandy. Forget Dance Little Lady. Forget even Billy Elliot.
Admittedly, it’s not clear that anyone – apart from the casting director perhaps – had any idea how much would be owed to the input of Ina De La Haye. And sadly, in spite of her contribution, the film’s wider reputation is unlikely ever to zoom to stratospheric heights.
From a totally unexpected high point, then, it plods on to a conclusion as creaky as it is abrupt in which the worse-than-useless but devilishly handsome Mr. Gordon finally rehabilitates himself by saving Jill from a blazing inferno. In so doing, he plunges through a collapsing floor to his doom. Or does he?
In some last-minute dialogue, the hospitalised girl, enquiring about her father, is assured by Dr. Ransome that he’s “fine.” Of course, this can’t be true. And as protective lies go, this one might strike most modern viewers as a bit of a stinker.
But one weak attempt to look into the human intricacies surrounding truth and lies, if only by default, leads to better examples. Easily the best of these in my own recent viewing occurs in The Farewell (2019). Award-winning Chinese-American director Lulu Wang draws us in with an original mixture of spiritual art and observational humour. Above all, she holds us with a sense of emotional connectedness via fictional alter ego Billi Wang, played magnificently by Awkwafina. By this means we engage, often uncomfortably, with a Chinese cultural norm that, it seems, firmly discourages all family members from divulging a diagnosis of terminal illness to any elderly relative so affected.
Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) must therefore never learn about her cancer, though we, the audience, increasingly suspect she understands the situation perfectly well and, what’s more, has her own very positive view of how things are going to pan out.
In the New Normal, these flare-ups of cinematic splendour could look like visions of a deeply reasoned Hope. If such silly notions should ever happen to spread, just don’t tell anyone where they started.