The Last Days Of Dolwyn – Review

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The Last Days Of Dolwyn is a period drama that was written and directed by Emlyn Williams and originally released in the UK in July 1949.  It stars distinguished British stage actress Dame Edith Evans and, in his debut screen appearance, future Hollywood legend Richard Burton.  Set at the end of the 19th century, the film tells the story of the villagers of Dolwyn, a tiny hamlet in a Welsh valley that is about to be flooded in order to provide Lancashire with water.  Matters are complicated by the fact that the agent responsible for persuading the villagers to sell up (played by director Williams) is an embittered former resident of Dolwyn who was hounded out of the village in shame after having stolen the collection money from the local chapel.

The film isn’t subtle instead opting to tug at your heartstrings in its depiction of bucolic working-class bliss threatened by grasping aristocrats; I’ve no doubt that life in a Welsh farming village at the turn of the century was a lot tougher than this film would have you believe.  Similarly, the obvious parallel of the unstoppable wall of water that threatens to engulf Dolwyn with the inexorable advance of industrialism is pretty heavy-handed.

The film reserves most of its ire not for the gentry but for the nouveau riche, represented by the agent.  His crime – which is evidently greater than that of the lords and ladies – is to have turned his back on his own: a class traitor.  In essence then it’s a pretty conservative movie, endorsing as it does the status quo, decrying ‘progress’ – pah, who wants clean drinking water anyway bach? – and doing its bit for nationalists everywhere.

That said there’s no denying Dolwyn’s charm or that of the villagers themselves although their innocence takes some swallowing.  A good example is this clip, in which Gareth (played by a positively adolescent Richard Burton) tells his mother and brother about his brief experience of Liverpool.

The Last Days Of Dolwyn – Dinner Scene

In fact, if you ignore the no doubt well-intentioned but actually rather patronising politics, there’s much to enjoy in The Last Days Of Dolwyn.  For one thing, the Welsh language – as spoken by what must have been every Welsh character actor working at the time – is a truly beautiful sound, to say nothing of the singing. Yes it may be another stereotype but it’s impossible to deny the stirring power of a Welsh choir, to the extent that even the hardened cynics will begin to wonder just what is being lost in the name of progress.

The Last Days Of Dolwyn – Welsh singing

For the most part, this is an engaging and gently humorous account of what even in 1949 was a vanished way of life.  Ironically, it also stands as a record of contemporary film-making techniques, in which regard it looks and sounds an awful lot older.  It seems incredible to believe that, across the Atlantic, Rebel Without A Cause was only six years away.

It would be remiss of me to review this film without making special mention of Richard Burton, who went on to achieve superstardom without perhaps ever reaching the artistic heights predicted for him.  In the last decade or so it has become fashionable to knock Burton, writing him off as a stiff as a board stage performer who did all his acting with his (admittedly incredible) voice.  Indeed, some even held that view while he was still alive, notably Montgomery Clift who said of Burton “That’s not acting; that’s reciting.”  However, I maintain that he was a truly great actor who needed the right material to highlight his gifts but rarely got it.  His early Hollywood career was something of a false start but for a period of about 12 years from 1958 he made some of the best and most interesting films going.

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