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Film / The Passionate Friends

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The Passionate Friends is a 1949 film directed by David Lean, starring Claude Rains, Trevor Howard and Ann Todd. Essentially a psychological drama, it treads much the same ground as Lean's earlier Brief Encounter, albeit in a very different way.

Mary Justin (Todd) and Steven Strafford (Howard) were lovers when they were at college. However, Mary rejects Steven's proposal of marriage, claiming that she can't bear the thought of belonging to another person, and that romantic love is too intense. Time passes, and they both marry other people — Mary choosing to wed Howard (Rains) for both affection and material purposes, of which Howard himself is fully aware. The film tracks their lives as their paths cross again twice more.


  • Despair Event Horizon: Two of these occur, and they are particularly important in this film, as they reveal two big truths. Howard crosses the Despair Event Horizon when he thinks Mary is cheating on him again. This leads him to file for divorce and name Steven as co-respondent, which would have created a massive scandal for everyone concerned. The depth of Howard's hurt and his acting out of emotion betray the fact that he loves his wife. Mary crosses her Despair Event Horizon when Howard rejects her and she attempts suicide, finally revealing the depth of her feelings for him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mary intends to throw herself in front of a Tube train when the full weight of her actions finally hits her.
  • Gold Digger: Mary. Howard is perfectly cognisant of this, and it doesn't bother him. His reasoning is that he enjoys his status and money, so why wouldn't someone else?
  • Oh, Crap!: Happens to Howard, who then manufactures one of these moments for Mary and Steven. Howard realises that Mary and Steven have been having an affair when they lie about going to see a play. He then calmly asks Steven to stay for drinks, and leaves the theatre tickets they had forgotten on the coffee table. Mary and Steven quickly realise that they have been rumbled.
  • Sexless Marriage: The film hints as this. An early scene shows us separate beds for Mary and Howard, although this was the norm at the time.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: This is Howard's point of view. Howard is shown to be wrong, though, as he eventually admits that he has fallen in love with his wife.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Mary's lack of emotional self-knowledge means that her take on events must often be carefully assessed. The film itself will sometimes point this out by showing something quite different from Mary's words.