Built up to give the impression that it is taking a disapproving view of an adulterous affair between a free-thinking woman and an Episcopal clergyman, it is really a slick and sympathetic sanction of the practice of free love—or, at least, of an illicit union that is supposedly justified by naturalness. And because it has Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles, the indelicacy of its implications is just that much more intrusive and cheap.
Actually, the most distasteful aspect of this picture, which was made from a script by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, based on a story by Mr. Ransohoff, is that it uses the formidable Miss Taylor to rationalize values and views that are immature, specious, meretricious and often ridiculous.
When she, as the artist-mother of a 9-year-old illegitimate son, lectures the clergyman-headmaster of a California private school on why atheism is desirable and why she doesn't wish to put her son in his charge, he is made to concede that maybe he is "pompous" in politely disputing her. And when she presents the example of a sandpiper with a broken wing to drive home her favorite argument that every creature should be permitted to "fly free," he is forced to swallow this romantic twaddle, just as the audience is supposed to do.
Likewise, when he abandons caution and succumbs to her arguments and charms, it is he who is made to appear awkward because he has a sense of guilt. And finally, when he walks away from her—and likewise from his wife and his job—it is he who is made to seem degraded in the face of her sustained righteousness.
In short, all the best of it is given to the woman, whom Miss Taylor plays with the lofty and elegant assurance of a chicly dressed, camera-pampered star. Her arty and shallow pretensions of a bold, humanistic philosophy are never intelligently challenged. And Mr. Burton is compelled to play the clergyman in an annoyingly solemn, apologetic way.
However, there are a lot of handsome and diverting incidentals in this film—a lot of scenic and environmental details to give it a sophisticated air and look. Much of it was shot on location in the coastal area of California's Big Sur, with the rugged and beautiful seacoast to give the color cameras much grandeur on which to dwell. And Vincente Minelli, as director, has captured the style and charm of an artist's beach house and the clatter and splash of an artist's friends.
Charles Bronson and James Edwards represent the more forthright of these, and Eva Marie Saint is lucid and sincere as the clergyman's wife. Robert Webber as an oily school patron, Torin Thatcher as a judge and Morgan Mason as the overly precocious son of the heroine are up to what they have to do.
A viewer who is not careful may be deceived by the tricky blend of piety and physical allurements that Miss Taylor presents. But don't let it fool you. It's the same old Hollywood stuff.