Back in 1930, Europe was beginning to return to turmoil, and a fallout from this were the refugees fleeing persecution, among them sisters Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora (Audrey Hepburn) who arrive in London with a letter of introduction to relative Anselmo (Charles Goldner). He is perplexed at first, not knowing what to do with these two newcomers, but on hearing they have had to escape their native land after their father was killed in a political murder, he realises he must put a roof over their head, especially when Nora collapses from hunger and exhaustion right there in his café. But now, seven years later, there comes news that Maria's old romantic partner Louis (Serge Reggiani) has survived and he wants to see her again. However, the years apart have soured him...
Secret People was a film carrying the hopes of the British film industry, or that was the hype surrounding it in the early nineteen-fifties, with a director (Thorold Dickinson) straight from the success of what was judged an instant classic with The Queen of Spades, and a screenplay co-written by him, promising to hold all the weight and intellectualism of the important cinema from the Continent, evoked by the casting of Cortese, regarded as a vital part of that movement's sophistication. Future director Lindsay Anderson even wrote a book about the production while it was being made, serving to whet the appetites of the cognoscenti all the more that this was going to truly place British film culture on a worldwide standing, a real touch of class, and intelligent with it.
Today the film has almost been forgotten, except for one thing: William Wyler famously clapped eyes on Audrey Hepburn here and was convinced he had found the princess he needed for his next project Roman Holiday, and the rest was history, as she secured the role, bagged an Oscar, and was soon one of the greatest style icons of the twentieth century. This has led some to seek out Secret People for curiosity's sake, where they see her in a supporting role, bright as a button and getting to show off the ballet moves she gave up shortly before commencing her acting career, but while she has a fresh-faced ingenue delivery, it's hardly her most accomplished part, she simply was requested to portray youthful energy and innocence in contrast to the far more serious business going on around her, for this was a very self-important film.
So much so that at the time, this saviour of British motion pictures was almost unanimously rejected by the public, who found its groaningly sincere tone a chore when they wanted something more escapist or inspirational, and the intellectuals either balked at Anderson bigging it up to an overinflated degree, or when they saw it recognised something well-meaning but faltering when it came to tackling material that had strong echoes of what Alfred Hitchcock had achieved with Sabotage, the Joseph Conrad adaptation of about fifteen years before - and that had flopped as well. Seeing it away from that air of disappointment, it is something of a grind, relentlessly forcing poor Maria into terrible situations now her beloved ex has had his conscience twisted into terrorism and demanding she assist him and his cell in their assassination bids, so there is nothing resembling a laugh here, not even in the lighter moments that afford the heroine some optimism. On the other hand, if you like a wallow in a drama that lets no light in, then this was suitably depressing, and was by no means a feat of rank amateurism, more the wrong film at the wrong time. We have it to thank for Audrey, anyway. Music by Roberto Gerhard.
[Network's restored Blu-ray from The British Film has a trailer, image gallery and subtitles as extras.]