What inspiration blooms, watered by stormy weather

Rain is a national obsession - never more than in British films. James Clarke reveals what happens when the heavens open

August 9, 2012

Another British summer, with hopes for cloudless skies constantly dashed by wet weather. Yet a damp Olympics gives us an opportunity to reflect on a particularly British preoccupation with the rain and our stoic attitude towards it - and the way this has often been reflected in the cinema. We can certainly find strikingly rain-soaked stories in genres ranging from the period romance of Jane Campion’s 2009 Bright Star to the contemporary horror of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).

In the movies, rain can function as an expressive device, as a dramatic cog in the mechanism of plot or as an opportunity for great aesthetic and atmospheric effects. Whether engineered or happily shoehorned into the proceedings by film-makers unable to change a weather-hounded schedule, its capacity to raise the dramatic interest of a scene or sequence seems to work particularly well at a film’s denouement. Just think of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987), its closing moments centred around Withnail (Richard E. Grant) delivering the Hamlet soliloquy from under an umbrella in the driving rain.

We might also recall Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Chariots of Fire, in which Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) addresses a gathering of fans beneath their umbrellas, post-race, on a grassy track. As he speaks, effectively offering a sermon about the intersection of his faith and his commitment to sport, the rain pours down. Yet precisely at the moment of conclusion, almost of revelation, the drab day breaks and the sun illuminates the scene.

In terms of perhaps its most familiar deployment (in film noir), film scholar Jim Kitses has written that “like fog and mist, rain is symbolic weather that represents an intensification of noir’s darkness (its ‘murk’), the shadow world rendered not only mysterious and dangerous but destabilising, turbulent, hostile”. Something similar can apply in romantic dramas. Not only does falling in love have something of the disorientating quality that Kitses describes, but there are long traditions of rain being used to express the idea of fertility and as a symbol of heavenly forces at work on earth.

In Mike Newell’s 1994 romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, the funeral sequence contrasts with the other settings in the film, taking place in the shadowy arc of the Dartford Crossing as Matthew (John Hannah) says goodbye to his partner Gareth (Simon Callow). It concludes with a voice-over of him reading W. H. Auden’s poem Stop All the Clocks, accompanied by several shots outside the church showing the coffin being brought to the car. A wide shot brings the sequence to a close, umbrella-carrying guests standing in front of the starkly contrasting backdrop of church and factory. It’s a sombre image, the moment when the film counterpoints its comedy by acknowledging the hardest of losses.

Later, the closing scene has its two lovers finally come together - in effect, marrying - on a bucolic West London street as heavy rain falls.

“Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed,” says Carrie (Andie MacDowell), confirming love as the most powerful of natural forces. As the lovers kiss, the camera rises up towards the storm clouds and there is the sound of lightning striking, the weather having the very last word on the ebbing and flowing of chance and destiny that have comprised the plot of the film.

Rain can also equate with vulnerability, providing just the right conditions for the twists and turns of romance to play out.

Certainly, a sense of vulnerability imbues the proposal scene in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The exchange takes place in the driving rain as Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) take shelter. Drenched and dishevelled, both are stripped of their typical varieties of strength and so just a little more fragile than usual.

It’s this state of vulnerability that finds iconic expression in David Lean’s judicious deployment of rainfall in Brief Encounter (1945), using the weather to accentuate plot, to sharpen emotional detail and characterisation, in the service of meaning. The portrayal of Laura, the film’s protagonist, brings us right back to the idea of stoicism in the face of difficult circumstances.

In Lean’s lauded romance of restrained passion, Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Johnson) start an affair, yet at a certain point she tells him, “There’s too much in the way.” Yet once she is sitting on a train about to go home, she finds she can hold back no more and rushes out to Alec’s flat. As we watch her approach the door of the well-appointed home, we hear Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 and see, on the left of the frame, that it is raining. Once she is inside, Alec removes her coat. The rain implies the possibility of intimacy.

Laura and Alec kiss, but she heads out when Alec’s flatmate arrives home. The scene then cuts to outside as the camera tracks fast behind Laura, following her as she runs along a street through the pouring rain. Rachmaninov continues to underscore the moment and there is then another cut, this time to the camera tracking backwards, from a position in front of Laura, as she keeps running. Momentarily, we feel as though we, too, are sharing in the urgency of the destabilised moment.

“I felt so ashamed,” Laura confesses in voice-over as she gets soaked, the medium shot momentarily held with the street behind her glistening - a rather fleeting, pretty background for a moment of misery. She finally walks on and then notes that the rain has stopped. By this late stage in the drama, the rainfall has somehow washed away the “encounter”, but it has also drenched Laura, serving tangibly to express her inward fragility. It’s certainly a melodramatic flourish, and a necessary one, in a story all about the enforced emotional aridity of its lovers.

This emotive tendency towards combining romantic drama and rainfall also finds a place in a still relatively neglected movie, Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, which is being re-released by the British Film Institute later this year. Suffused with a sense of both realism and the heightened aesthetic allure of film noir, the 1947 drama is an archetypal piece of British post-war cinema, telling the story of a prisoner on the run and heading back to his former lover, who has now married.

Immensely popular on its original release - and “hailed as the symphony of London’s East End”, according to the trailer - It Always Rains on Sunday is thriller and noir, love story and kitchen-sink domestic drama, all threaded together by plenty of sombre night-time-set action and streets gleaming with rain. The known world becomes obscured, no help at all to the authorities pursuing the convict.

Often cited for its restraint and stylistic modesty, British cinema brims with examples of films that speak vividly to our relationship with the rain. Rain-on-film can embody a certain drab melancholy, contribute to the build-up of dramatic tension - and perhaps even hint at the possibility of new beginnings once the storm has passed.

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