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The Seventh Veil
cast: James Mason, Ann Todd, Herbert Lom, Hugh McDermott, and Albert Lieven

director: Compton Bennett

94 minutes (PG) 1945
Odeon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
A huge commercial and critical success upon its release, netting Muriel and Sydney Box an Oscar for best screenplay, Compton Bennett's The Seventh Veil is what can only be called 'high-minded tosh'.

The film opens with Francesca (Ann Todd) sneaking out of her hospital room and trying to commit suicide. Dismayed at her psychological state, her doctors decide to call in a psychiatrist (an eerily intense Herbert Lom) who dopes her up and gets her to tell her story in an attempt to get her to talk through the problems that have left her almost comatose. Francesca's story is one of an orphan left in the care of her second cousin, the misogynistic and sadistic bachelor Nicholas (James Mason). Initially refusing to acknowledge her presence at all, Nicholas only warms to Francesca once he discovers her skill as a pianist. Pushing her, relentlessly, he pays for her to attend the Royal Academy where she meets the swing-enthusiast Peter (Hugh McDermott). When the couple get engaged, Nicholas responds by tightening his grip on Francesca, whipping her away to the continent where she forges a reputation as a concert pianist. Deprived of friends and love and forever watched by Nicholas, Francesca meets an old school-friend and collapses after a performance for fear that her hands might be damaged. Time passes again and Francesca meets the young portrait painter Maxwell (Albert Lieven) who falls in love with her, too. They decide to elope and this time Nicholas cannot maintain his power over his ward. However, a terrible accident happens to the couple leaving Francesca convinced that she can no longer play the piano. A belief that pushes her to the suicide attempt at the beginning of the film and an intervention by the psychiatrist who unravels her psychological block by helping her realise which of the three men in her life she genuinely loves.

Let us begin by addressing the 'tosh' element of the film...

Written in the 1940s, The Seventh Veil depicts a social and emotional world that no longer exists. It is a world in which people keep a stiff upper-lip and suffer through their problems whilst slowly hollowing out and turning to dust. This creates a hurdle for contemporary audiences as Francesca's unhappiness and Nicholas' true feelings are so obvious that the film's ending is entirely predictable. Not least because compared to Nicholas, Peter and Maxwell are furiously under-written empty suits who get hardly any screen time or development at all. However, while there may not be any doubt as to how the film is going to end, the ending itself is rather unsatisfying. There is something decidedly unsettling about a woman falling for a man who is a) her legal guardian when she was 14, b) her second cousin, c) an unbearable martinet who prevented her from having any friends or other lovers, and, d) prone to trying to end her playing career by slamming the piano lid down on her fingers whilst roaring "If you won't play for me, you won't play for anyone else ever again." I can see in these an attempt to wrong-foot the audience and give the story a twist in the tail but they don't bode well for Francesca and Nicholas' future do they?

As for the film's 'high-minded' element -

What saves The Seventh Veil from being nothing more than a slushy and implausible romantic melodrama is the fact that grafted on to the 'who will she pick?' formula is a good deal of psychological analysis. Rather than having love come as a flash or insight and unhappiness be represented by simple weeping, the film uses a psychological vocabulary to describe the emotions of its characters. This being 1945, the issue of sex is largely avoided but despite this the film suggests that Francesca has come to see sex as something completely antithetical to her other love, playing the piano. For example, early in the film Francesca is in line for a music scholarship but she is caught sneaking out to the fields with a friend and is caned on her hands, preventing her from playing the piano effectively. The scene of Francesca and her friend at play is ostensibly chaste but filled with sexualised imagery such as Francesca's friend slowly rolling her stockings back up as the pair get ready to head home. When the friend resurfaces at one of Francesca's concerts, Francesca collapses, fearing for her hands. Similarly, while sequestered in European conservatoires away from the attentions of other men, Nicholas endlessly lectures Francesca about protecting her hands and how they are her only asset. When Francesca's sexuality finally breaks loose, prompting her to elope, she immediately leaps to the assumption that she can no longer play the piano. Her problem is only resolved when the psychiatrist helps her realise that she can have both sex and the piano.

Undeniably interesting and probably quite innovative for its day, this study in sexual neurosis keeps the film watchable but it cannot compensate for the stilted and artificial nature of the relationships it is attached to and for all of its high-mindedness, I am not actually sure that it adds that much depth to the character of either Nicholas or Francesca. Both are, at best, two-dimensional and the film struggles as a result.

The DVD comes with a load of trailers for other films released as a part of Odeon Entertainment's 'Best of British' collection. This collection is made up of classic British films and while I applaud the initiative, I can't help but feel that the name of the collection is rather unsettlingly jingoistic. The DVD also includes a frankly bizarre documentary featuring a much older James Mason visiting his home town of Huddersfield. The documentary gives a glimpse of what the north of England was like before the collapse of British manufacturing and the depredations of Jimmy Goldsmith and his fellow buy-em-cheap-break-em-up-sell-em-high robber barons. Mason's Huddersfield is a town where men walk to work through soot-blackened streets with flat caps on their heads and fags in their mouths. Where men tend to huge steam-powered pistons and brag about how it takes seven years to train someone to sort wool by hand. The company boardrooms are full of balding ancient businessmen who brag about how they built themselves up from nothing before retiring to the local country club where they compliment each other on how attractive their secretaries are. In effect, the documentary shows us an island of time that has long since been swallowed up by the waves and, even more bizarrely, it is presented by James Mason who talks about this dead world as though it was the most vibrant and eternal place on Earth. It's quite moving in a way.

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