25 September 2004 | JamesHitchcock
Still-Watchable Costume Drama
'Green Dolphin Street' is set in the early Victorian era and features two unusual backgrounds for Hollywood films, New Zealand and the Channel Islands. (Contrary to what some have thought, 'St Pierre' is not in France, but rather in the British-ruled Channel Islands, although the model for the offshore nunnery was clearly Mont-St-Michel in Normandy). The plot centers around two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, who are both in love with the same man, William. (An added complication is that the girls' mother, in her youth, was in love with William's father, but they were prevented from marrying by the opposition of her parents).
William himself loves Marguerite; indeed, he seems to be unaware that Marianne is in love with him. He persuades the girls' wealthy and influential father to help him to obtain a commission in the Royal Navy. He is, however, a feckless young man and a heavy drinker, and, after getting drunk and missing his ship while in China, deserts from the navy and flees to New Zealand. He meets Timothy, another Channel Islander and fellow-fugitive from justice who has killed a man in a brawl. Timothy is now running a logging business in a remote area of the North Island with the help of Maori workers, and invites William to assist him in his business. The business prospers, and William writes to Marguerite's father, asking for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Unfortunately, he is drunk at the time he writes the letter, and inadvertently writes 'Marianne' rather than 'Marguerite'. Marianne, delighted to think her love is returned, sets off for New Zealand to marry him.
In some respects, 'Green Dolphin Street' is a standard costume drama of its period, a combination of a Jane Austen-style drawing-room romance and an epic of the British Empire. The acting is neither particularly distinguished nor particularly bad. Nevertheless, it has a few interesting features. An earthquake hits the logging camp, and this scene can still generate tension even today, as the special effects are surprisingly well done for a film of this period. The characters are well-drawn and undergo genuine development; the feckless William becomes a more responsible character and comes to appreciate the finer qualities of the wife he has married by mistake. Timothy, a wild character in his youth, also matures. He is himself secretly in love with Marianne, but keeps this a secret as he believes she will be happier with William. (Unlike many of the white settlers, he admires the native Maori population and befriends them rather than treating them with contempt). Marianne, headstrong and determined but capable of sincere love, plays an important role in her husband's success. Back in St Pierre, Marguerite, originally a rather spoiled young woman, develops a religious vocation and enters a nunnery. (The film has a strong, specifically Catholic, religious atmosphere). This is a film that has stayed watchable. 6/10.
There are a couple of errors that I spotted. The ship's captain talks of having seen a flightless bird larger than an ostrich in New Zealand. This is presumably a reference to the moa, but this bird was already extinct before Europeans first landed in the country. It seems strange that William and Timothy, both fugitives from British justice, should think themselves safe in New Zealand, where they live quite openly under their real names. The country was, after all, a British colony at the time, and they could presumably have been arrested by the local authorities and extradited to Britain.