The titular Madeleine (Ann Todd) is torn between her father’s (Leslie Banks) wish for her to find an eligible suitor, and secret love Emile (Ivan Desny), the economically inferior and therefore less eligible man to whom she is secretly engaged. Will she take control of her own destiny like a modern woman, or go with the man her parents pick out for her, like Bridget Jones?
Madeleine begins rather like several other of David Lean’s romantic films, albeit in 1950s Glasgow. But this is just the beginning. While entertaining super-sideburned Emile in her underground sex dungeon, he urges her to come clean to her father, but she struggles to find the right moment.
In the meantime she carelessly becomes engaged to William Minnoch (Norman Woodland) as the film shifts to something like a Victorian-era noir. Then in the final act it morphs again into a courtroom drama surrounding a crime we never see, with an underlying message about the value of confronting your problems head on.
This is in many ways a brave film, and I’m not just talking about the scene where they have outdoor sex at night in Scotland. It continually subverts and surprises meaning there is not a dull moment. Lean regular (and wife) Todd gives another great performance in the lead role, having previously portrayed the character onstage.
Lean’s excellent direction employs visual motifs reminiscent of Fritz Lang such as the long shadow of Emile’s twirling cane signifying his approach. He also manages to squeeze in some of his trademark crowd shots in the form of an angry mob outside the courtroom. Based on a true story, the final treatment of the case is surprisingly similar to Millionaire cheat play Quiz. The result is enthralling and highly enjoyable, even if Lean rated it as his least favourite of his films.