This is the only film based on a novel by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956 ). During her lifetime she was regarded as one of Britain's leading novelists, but today she is largely forgotten and most of her books are out of print. She was a member of the rural social-realist school whose other members included H. E. Bates (who wrote the script for this film), Mary Webb and John Moore. Her works show the obvious influence of Thomas Hardy, one of the founders of that school; there are certain similarities between the plot of her "The Isle of Thorns" and that of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", and Reuben Backfield, the anti-hero of her "Sussex Gorse", has a lot in common with Henchard in "The Mayor of Casterbridge".
I have never read Kaye-Smith's "Joanna Godden", but on the evidence of this film it would seem to have been directly inspired by Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd". The action is set in 1905. Like Bathsheba Everdene, the eponymous heroine inherits a farm and decides to run it herself. Bathsheba starts her career by sacking a corrupt bailiff; Joanna does so by sacking a corrupt shepherd (or "looker", the dialect word used here). Like Bathsheba, Joanna outrages her neighbours by her defiance of convention, which in this case involves ploughing up pastureland for crops and an unsuccessful scheme for cross-breeding sheep. As in Hardy's novel the main focus of interest is the heroine's love-life and the men who seek her hand marriage, hence the title of the film. (Another possible link with "Far from the Madding Crowd" is the fact that one character drowns while bathing in the sea, as Troy is (wrongly) believed to have done).
Joanna's two main suitors are Arthur Alce, a neighbouring farmer, and Martin Trevor, the son of a local landowner. Joanna initially shows little interest in Arthur. Part of the reason is that her late father made no secret of the fact that he wanted the two to marry, and she wants to prove herself her own woman, but there is also the fact that Arthur seems more interested in Joanna's land than in Joanna herself and has little respect for her judgement. The more gentle Martin seems more to her liking. There is also a suggestion that she might also be attracted to her "looker" Collard, but this theme is never fully developed and Collard is summarily dismissed after the failure of the cross-breeding scheme, which was adopted on his advice. Other characters who play important roles are Joanna's younger sister Ellen and Martin's father Harry.
Like Hardy (Wessex, particularly Dorset), Webb (Shropshire) and Moore (the West Midlands, particularly Herefordshire), Kaye-Smith was a regional novelist, and her particular region was her native Sussex and the adjacent parts of Kent and Surrey. "Joanna Godden" is set on Romney Marsh in Kent. In the opening credits we learn that "The world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. The Marsh lies where Kent ends and Sussex begins. A place apart, which man has slowly won, acre by acre, from the sea. A flat land, flat as the sea-bed it once was, and a Marsh only in name, for man has transformed bog and reeds into pasture. An austere land of windswept distances and scattered communities. Lonely now, but lonelier still in 1905".
The film was made by Ealing Studios and produced by Michael Balcon, who also produced the famous Ealing Comedies. The aim seems to have been to make a grand agricultural epic of the English countryside, a 1940s version of what John Schlesinger was to achieve with his version of "Far from the Madding Crowd" from twenty years later. That was doubtless why a writer as distinguished as Bates was engaged to write the script and Britain's greatest living composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, to compose the musical score (a fine one). The credited director was Charles Frend, although apparently some scenes were shot by Robert Hamer when Frend was taken ill, so I am not sure whether credit for the wonderful black-and- white photography of the Marsh scenery should be given to Frend or Hamer. Perhaps both.
And yet, despite all these advantages, "The Loves of Joanna Godden" has never really been my favourite film. Perhaps the main problem is that the two main characters are just too unsympathetic. The oddly named Googie Withers' Joanna does not seem to realise that there is a difference between being independent and determined on the one hand and being high-handed and stubborn on the other. John McCallum's Arthur, although he eventually turns out to play Gabriel Oak to Joanna's Bathsheba, is good-looking but snobbish and supercilious and surprisingly misogynistic for a romantic hero. (He quite openly laughs at the idea of a woman farmer). The ending also seems rushed and muddled; both Ellen and Harry play important parts in this denouement, but both have had so little of any importance to do earlier in the film that we are left without any real understanding of their psychology or why they act as they do. I was left with the feeling that a much better film could have been made from this basic story. As a tale of Victorian or Edwardian rural life, this film does not begin to approach Schlesinger's. 6/10