In the early 19th century, an Irishman (Michael Wilding) moves to Australia, where he befriends an ex-convict (Joseph Cotten) whose fragile wife (Ingrid Bergman) has become a reclusive alcoholic cared for by her domineering housemaid (Margaret Leighton). When Wilding attempts to help cure Bergman of her neuroses (falling in love with her in the process), he quickly learns more about her unconventional marriage to Cotten, and the tragedy that sent them to Australia.
Based on a novel by Australian author Helen Simpson, this historical melodrama was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film in Technicolor, and features several instances of the “long take” he so infamously utilized in Rope (1948) the previous year. It performed poorly at the box office, and is generally viewed as one of Hitchcock’s lesser efforts — primarily because it’s more of a domestic melodrama than a thriller, and moves at a much more leisurely, literary pace. It’s often compared (unfavorably) with Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning American debut film, Rebecca (1940), which featured a similarly overbearing housemaid intent on meddling in the private life of her mistress — though in this case, Margaret Leighton’s Millie is (unfortunately) not given nearly as much screentime as Judith Anderson’s Miss Danvers in Rebecca. Indeed, given what a pivotal role Leighton ends up playing in the denouement of Under Capricorn, it’s especially frustrating to see how underdeveloped her character is; she’s given one excellent, intriguing monologue mid-way through the movie, but otherwise simply comes and goes until the film’s final scenes bring her back with a wallop.
At the film’s heart, however, is Ingrid Bergman, giving a typically mesmerizing performance as a conflicted woman driven to drink and seclusion by both her tragic past and her challenging present circumstances. Also effective is Michael Wilding (best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s second husband — though, interestingly, he later married Leighton), as the do-gooding man determined to help rescue Bergman from her self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, Jack Cardiff’s luminous cinematography bathes the entire film in gorgeous, painterly hues. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that the movie itself ultimately doesn’t move in a very interesting direction: we wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about life during this very specific time in Australia’s history (when it was still largely comprised of ex-convicts), but instead must be content with the melodramatic tensions between Cotten (giving an overly restrained performance), Bergman, Wilding, and Leighton. It’s far from boring, and beautifully shot, but is really only must-see for Hitchcock completists.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta
- Michael Wilding as Charles
- Margaret Leighton as Millie
- Jack Cardiff’s cinematography
No, though it’s certainly recommended to Hitchcock enthusiasts and/or fans of Ingrid Bergman. In 1958, voted by the Cahiers du Cinema as one of the ten greatest films of all time. Available for free viewing on the Internet Archive.