As Hollywood budgets and advertising spends spiral ever-upwards, studios are falling over themselves to make their films accessible in order to reach the largest possible audience. Though often defended in terms of inclusivity and democracy, the reality of this tendency is that more and more films are pandering to children. However, while the ravening id of social media may demand a constant diet of aspirational fantasy, few are the films that actually stop to think about what it feels like to be an ordinary child. Based on a short story by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed – the man responsible for such classics as The Third Man and Oliver! – The Fallen Idol is about how little sense the adult world makes to children and how often that adult world makes demands of its smallest residents.
Shot amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film revolves around the son of a French diplomat. His mother sick and his father busy, Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is left in the care of his father’s butler and house-keeper. Philippe adores Baines (Ralph Richardson) who lavishes attention on the boy while the Butler’s wife (Sonia Dredel) treats him like the unwanted burden he almost certainly is.
At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.
Reed begins disentangling the film from Philippe’s viewpoint in a wonderful scene where Philippe escapes the house and happens upon Baines in a secret meeting with his lover Julie (Michele Morgan). Baines tells Philippe that Julie is his long-lost niece and the couple talk about their problems in a way that is both completely comprehensible to adult viewers and completely incomprehensible to Philippe. Every time the boy asks a question, the couple feed him another lie and so you get the idea that while Philippe may see everything that happens, he does not necessarily understand it. In fact, this idea of people speaking different languages within a single conversation is one of the film’s recurring themes, as is the idea that adults will manipulate children in order to protect both their secrets and their self-esteem.
Having revealed the existence of Julie, the film moves beyond Philippe’s limited understanding of the Baines’ marriage and reveals the paranoid mess that had been fuelling all of the lies and hostility. Desperate to protect his friend, Philippe tries to keep the secret but his flawed English and Mrs. Baines’ suspiciousness result in the emergence of rogue pronouns and the eventual disclosure that Baines has been spending time with his niece. Suddenly nice and full of affection, Mrs. Baines pumps Philippe for information and then sets about trying to catch her philandering husband unawares.
The second half of The Fallen Idol is an absolute masterclass in ambiguously subjective filmmaking. Freed from the presence of his wife, Baines invites Julie over to the house and the couple play hide-and-seek with the young Philippe whose giddy re-imagining of the house as a gothic mansion bleeds through into a reality of dark shadows and furniture covered with ghost-like sheets. When Mrs. Baines unexpectedly returns home Philippe’s over-excited imagination bends the world and transforms Mrs. Baines into a ghost and Mr. Baines into a brutal murderer.
The film’s final act involves the police trying to work out whether or not Mrs. Baines has actually been murdered. For this sequence, Reed draws on all of the film’s recurring themes and motifs to create an almost incomprehensible mass of information as adults manipulate Philippe and he struggles to keep his own stories straight. Sometimes Julie and Philippe speak in French, other times the police manoeuver Philippe into saying things as a means of bringing pressure to bear on other witnesses while the tension rises and rises. We know the truth and Baines knows the truth but the path the truthfulness leaves boot prints up and down Philippe’s back.
Aside from being thematically complex and narratively ambitious, The Fallen Idol is also beautifully photographed: Every shot is exquisitely composed and you can really feel the shift from elegant realism to the more stylised vision representing Philippe’s heightened reality. When shots are this carefully selected, skewing the camera slightly to one-side is enough to signal a drift into madness and confusion.
The performances are also universally excellent: Young Bobby Henrey is a fragile delight while the adults shift from friendliness to cruelty with the grace of people who really could not care less about the boy’s happiness or health. Ralph Richardson’s Baines is a particularly magnificent creation as Richardson manages to sell the sweaty-faced villain without ever completely undermining the fearless hero.
Lovingly restored and released on Blu-ray as well as DVD, this edition of The Fallen Idol is accompanied by a plethora of extras including interviews with critics, visits to the old locations and all sorts of commentaries and interviews. In an age of Netflix ‘n chill, it is wonderful to see someone really make the most of the home-release format. Truly a fitting tribute to one of the greatest of British films.