Film Review: Saraband for Dead Lovers

NEVER cross the Firm

It may have been made 75 years ago, but there are aspects of the somewhat fantastic Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) that echo the monarchcapades of the past few of years (possibly always) in the UK, slightly less flamboyant in daily dress perhaps, but absolutely in key with sinister undertones of maintaining the perpetual ruining of the sovereign machine (or Firm as it’s been labelled by those within the inner court) at any and all costs.

Of course predicting the future of the madlands that are contemporary Great Britain wasn’t the objective of the British director Basil Dearden (formally a stage director), nor of Australian Helen Simpson who wrote the book the film is based on, but history, like fashion can be cyclical, so too the machinations of the establishment and politics at large, where one doesn’t change for the times, the times must adhere to you, and staying rigidly in the ceremony of one’s past is key to perpetuity, or more honestly, power, wealth and control.

It’s a remarkable experience watching Saraband for the first time in 2023, a somewhat dark, sinister tale in the guise of a romantic period drama, set in the 1682 world of German Queens and future English Kings, where honest human emotions are quashed by ostentatious ceremony, manipulation, domination, and the pruning of truths to maintain rule, ie ‘Don’t look for romance in Hanover’ as the incomparable Electress Sophia (Francoise Rosay) warns the hapless Sophie (Joan Greenwood), who is trapped in a loveless, cruel marriage to her son Prince George Louis (Peter Bull). This is in no way a fairy tale story on any level, it’s about blind ideology and sacrifice, and it’s all the better for that. The trappings of wealth and privilege may scream all the radiant colours of the rainbow, but in reality, everything is a very cold black and white.

The film was Ealing Studios first foray into the world of Technicolor, a brand new technology that was rising swiftly, and it was a brave choice for a studio to flex it’s muscles in this new form, indeed, it was the most expensive production of it’s time, which is absolutely seen in every frame, and its clear across the board (performances, costumes, set design, cinematography, direction) that everyone involved was giving their absolute best.

Sweeping into this emotionally desolate Germanic world comes the dashing playboy Swedish mercenary Count Konigsmark (Stewart Granger), where of course upon their first crossing, the Count and Sophia immediately sense a raging fire of possibilities between them, if they can only get away from this prison of supposed privilege. But they aren’t the only ones that notice this frisson, and it won’t be tolerated.

Being it was made in 1948, of course the acting is of a time, but in many ways appropriate for the starch life of royal pretence, regardless of that, Granger, Rosay, Flora Robson (as Countess Platen), and in particular Bull are an utter joy to behold, chewing up the gorgeous sets and costumes, bringing malevolence in a world that is part pop baroque, Jean-Paul Gaultier, German expressionism (there’s some truly stunning shadows at play throughout), and hints of David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn and aspects of psychedelic horror, plus the general insanity of the whole surreal world they inhabit.

What seriously enhances the entire sumptuous journey into darkness, is the new restoration by Filmfinity, who have taken the original prints and rescanned them, treating them and effectively creating results that are better than the originals, the film looks stunning on every level. Thankfully there are a few short documentaries on the disc that give background to that restoration, but also context to the making of the film and the era it was made in, and the actual history it’s based on (the Windsor’s changed from their original German name in 1917 because of World War 1) all bringing yet more fascination to a wonderfully distinct and unique piece of storytelling.

Saraband for Dead Lovers is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital now.

Look out for a competition coming your way to win Saraband for Dead Lovers on Blur Ray, along with WOMEN OF TWILIGHT. WATCH THIS SPACE!

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.