Basil Dearden (director)
25 November 2019 (released)
08 December 2019
Quintessentially a drama film (set in and made during WW2), THE HALFWAY HOUSE has supernatural undertones and concerns itself with ten people staying in a remote Welsh inn and their individual stories.
The film begins in Cardiff where successful orchestra conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight) is close to the point of collapse following a concert. Backstage, his doctor advices him to slow down and cancel his demanding tour… or face the consequences, meaning Davies has about three months left to live if he carries on with his insane schedule. Initially dismissing the good doctor’s advice he has a change of heart and decides to take a break by booking a holiday in the remote inn of the title. Being Welsh, it would appear that he is familiar with the surroundings since childhood. Meanwhile in a Welsh port, merchant Captain Harry Meadows (Tom Walls) and his French wife Alice (Francoise Rosay) have a bit of a hard time since beloved son perished during a German U-boat attack. Alice in particular struggles to come to grips with the loss of her beloved son… cue for some change of scenery and off they go to the countryside and the inn.
In London, Richard French (Richard Bird) and his wife Jill (Valerie White) have yet another row, this time they argue over the education of their teenage daughter Joanna (a very posh sounding Sally Ann Howes) and decide to go their separate ways altogether. Jill packs and leaves the house in order to travel, while daughter Joanna stays with daddy (who also is in dire need of a holiday after the latest argument with his wife). What both don’t know yet is that they will end up in the same Welsh inn… Also in London we have black marketeer Oakley who leaves the capital for a bit of fishing in… yep you guessed it, Wales!
Next up is Captain Fortescue (Guy Middleton), just released from Parkmoor Prison after having served time for stealing regimental funds from the Army. Finally in Bristol, female army volunteer Margaret (Philippa Hiatt) and here fiancé Terence (Pat McGrath) also plan on a little pre-honeymoon excursion direction Wales and the entire motley crew soon boards a train.
Having arrived in the countryside, Fortescue is cycling along a narrow road when he meets Oakley – as it transpires the two men know each other, presumably from past black market activities. Looking out for the halfway house at first they cannot find it even when scanning it with binoculars. When Oakley looks through binoculars again the building suddenly appears. A wild bicycle ride (not very convincingly filmed) ensues. After the two men enter the building its owner, Rhys (Mervyn Johns) appears seemingly out of nowhere and is soon joined by his daughter Gwyneth (squeaky-voiced Glynis Johns, Mervyn’s real-life daughter). Soon the other guests arrive. Richard French is, in contrast to daughter Joanna, not at all pleased when it emerges that his wife Jill also has made the inn her holiday destination – worse still, she seems to have found a new admirer in Fortescue. Alice, increasingly overcome with grief following her son’s death, requests a single room. Rhys tries to console her when the devastated woman hints she can’t wait to join her son in the hereafter and suggests there is much to live for yet. She is also a spiritualist and believes in life after death. Then she notices that Rhys has no reflection in the mirror when he leaves the room, just as his daughter Gwyneth casts no shadow when she walks in the garden. Other things are weird too, for example the newspapers scattered about the lobby are from 1942 (as is the last signature in the inn’s guest book) though it’s 1943.
As the various guests entertain each other, Joanna, in a desperate effort to reconcile her bickering parents and stop them from divorcing, stages an elaborate drowning accident that that almost ends in disaster. Things between Margaret and Terence also go awry when he tells her of his plans to accept a post in Berlin. Margaret, who hates war-mongering Germany, is aghast despite his explanation that Ireland is politically neutral and, for the time being at least, she calls off the wedding. Things get worse when Alice insists on a séance in the hope of contacting her dead son. Her sceptical husband turns on the radio instead, thus interrupting the ‘connection’ with the other side. After initial disagreements between the guests following Captain Meadows’s insensitive action the guests then notice that the radio broadcast announces events from 1942 and not the present… The mysterious Rhys and his daughter finally let on that they might be ghosts and appear at the same time every year to welcome guests in need of re-evaluating their lives and actions. Rhys also reveals that on the same day one year ago, the halfway house was destroyed by a German air raid, with both Rhys and Gwyneth presumably having perished. As a disbelieving group of guests are about to question their hosts sanity (only conductor Davies understands what’s going on) the announced air raid proceeds just as predicted by Rhys and the inn goes up in flames. The guests escape safely and the experience has made them better, happier and more understanding people.
While the overall concept of the film is amiable one can’t help getting the impression that this fantasy-drama has not aged too well. By nowadays standards it simply seems twee, not to mention overtly patriotic and jingoistic. Of course, THE HALFWAY HOUSE was filmed during WW2 and bearing that in mind it is rightly considered one of Ealing Studios finest outputs, further enhanced by its flawless cast.
This b/w wartime classic is now fully restored and available for the first time in Blu-ray format, with stills gallery and a new interview by cultural historian Matthew Sweet.