I’ll confess that I knew almost nothing if Mrs. Miniver before I watched it. About the only thing I was aware of was that it won Best Picture.
So, with a blank slate, I dove in.
As it turns out, Mrs. Miniver is about a middle-clash English family’s life during World War II, beginning in 1939. That’s noteworthy for two reasons. First, the film was released in 1942 and was based on a popular book from 1940. World War II was still very much unsettled when this film was in theaters.
Secondly, the “middle class” of England as portrayed in this film seems wealthy to a modern audience. Part of that is because social convention of the time emphasized grooming and dress, and part is because disposable income was spent on (non-electronic) things that we might consider luxury items today, such as a baby grand piano, a grandfather clock, or an extensive library of leather-bound books.
Yet, we know the Minivers are “middle class” because they can’t stop fretting over spending a little too much on non-essentials.
In fact, the first 15 minutes of the movie are devoted to the two Minivers surreptitiously trying to get the other’s approval for a purchase—him, for a new car he wants to buy, her for a hat she purchased that day in town. A hat!
The Minivers have a very young son and daughter, plus an elder son, Oxford man Vincent, who seems to be almost as old as his parents. The young children are actually rather funny, and their presence adds something to the movie.
One problem with this film is that it’s too English. Much of the conflict in the beginning and latter portions of the film revolves around social mores relating to someone of a “lower” class entering a flower competition traditionally won by a member of the nobility. That’s right: A flower competition. There’s a lot of class conflict in Mrs. Miniver that looks odd to American eyes.
There is quite a bit of World War II, however. Yet, there’s that strange thing I mentioned before: This movie was released in 1942. As such, there’s no resolution to one of the major undercurrents of the entire film.
There are some nice sub-plots. For example, a crashed Nazi pilot takes Mrs. Miniver hostage while her husband and son are in Dunkirk. He winds up passing out from his injuries, and she calls the police. But, before they arrive, he issues a chilling and defiant warning about what the Germans have done in other countries, and what they fully intend to do to England.
I think this movie had more of an impact in 1942 because audiences wanted to see their homefront lives reflected on the silver screen. As someone watching it today, the movie seems lacking because it’s about World War II without really showing much of anything directly related to the war until an air skirmish very late in the film—but that’s understandable. Delving much into an ongoing military conflict is tricky business for a filmmaker even today, much less seven decades ago.
This is a decent, if idealized look at the lives of the British during the early days of the war, when air raids and nightly trips to shelters or cellars were the norm. But the most interesting aspects of that facet would probably be better dealt with via a (pre-”aliens era”) History Channel documentary rather than this movie.
While there’s nothing wrong with Mrs. Miniver, it’s surprising that it won so much critical acclaim—including its Best Picture win, a Best Actress Oscar for Garson, a Best Supporting Actress victory for Teresa Wright, and additional wins for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. That’s a ton of awards for what is basically a well-made (by 1940s standards) melodrama.
I think we can chalk it up to wartime fervor. The powerful closing sermon by the village vicar, in particular, undoubtedly left an impression on audiences and Academy members alike.
Extracted from that unique historical context, however, the power of the movie is largely lost on me.