It has always been a challenge for filmmakers to represent working class life.

Regardless of their commitments, intentions and class background, flak will soon come from both left and right, accusing then of propaganda and misrepresentation, respectively.

Then, more often than not, it's bad box office. Do you really want to alienate your majority audience, who look to the cinema for escape, in order to appeal to minorities with a compassionate, or voyeuristic, interest in seeing how the other half dies?

All told, it's no surprise that most filmmakers shy away from working class subjects, nor that, when they don't, the results are often hesitant and unsatifactory.

With this in mind, Carol Reed's 1939 drama of life in a northern English mining town stands as a remarkable success; that it even got made seems a triumph, given the censorship rules then extant.

Michael Redgrave stars as Davey Fenwick, a miner's son whose academic ability wins him a scholarship. Socially committed, he views this, not so much as a way out of the mine, but more the chance to fight for and improve the lot of the Sleescale people on another front.

Pitted against this idealistic approach is the base cunning of Joe Gowlan (Emlyn Williams), who wants out, pure and simple. Joining the ranks of the bosses is an obvious way. So, taking advantage of the situation when a mob of hungry striking miners loots the local butchers shop, Joe rifles the till when no one is looking and sets himself up in business as a "turf accountant", using his ill-gotten gains.

Fenwick and Gowlan soon cross paths in the town of Tynecastle. Gowlan has been having girl trouble, in the shape of Jenny Sunley (Margaret Lockwood). Always opportunistic, he passes her off onto his less worldly "friend'".

Soon, Davey and Jenny are married. He drops out of university and takes up a teaching post in the Sleescale school, hoping to complete his degree by studying in the evenings. But Jenny's laziness and fecklessness - she believes that she was born to be a lady and should not have to work for anyone - means Davey's plans soon go awry, setting the stage for both Joe's inevitable return and a tragic denouement when the miners are compelled to work a new coal seam, located dangerously close to a mass of water...

One suspects that, regardless of politics, all viewers could agree that The Stars Look Down is a well-mounted piece of filmmaking, with Reed drawing good performances from a talented cast and handling most scenes, particularly the nail-biting tragic/predictable climax, well.

No doubt feminists will note that the film has little to say about gender, except presenting Jenny - the least developed character in the film - in an unflattering light.

Can't have everything...

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2003
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The Stars Look Down packshot
North of England class struggle in the late Thirties, when striking miners were starving.
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Director: Carol Reed

Writer: J B Williams, based on the novel by A J Cronin

Starring: Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Emelyn Williams, Kynaston

Year: 1939

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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