Based on the true story of Violette Szabo, an SOE agent in World War II who parachuted behind enemy lines and was eventually captured and executed by the Nazi’s( and then received a posthumous George Cross for her bravery), Carve Her Name with Pride is a well directed tribute to the bravery of this woman in wartime.
Early in the Second World War, spirited Violette Bushell is living in London. Her father is English and her mother is French, which accounts for her language skills. One day she meets French Army officer Etienne Szabo and the two quickly fall in love. After marrying, Violette discovers she’s pregnant, but Etienne is called back up to serve in North Africa. Tragically, Violette receives word that Etienne was killed in battle a few months later. She is devastated by the death of her beloved who never had the chance to see his daughter Tania. After his death, she shuts off as a way to deal with her grief. When she returns to life again, something unexpected lies waiting for her. To her surprise, she is asked to join the SOE to help the war effort. Due to her athleticism and bilingual skills, she’s an ideal candidate. Although apprehensive at first, Violette accepts out of a sense of duty. She is trained in the art of espionage and though makes mistakes at first, shows her mettle and willingness to learn. Soon enough, she’s one of the finest recruits and ready for a mission. Her first mission in Occupied France is successful as she makes contact with the remaining members of Resistance loyal to the SOE and helps persuade one to blow up an important viaduct. Along the way, she becomes close with fellow agent Tony Fraser and opens up a bit more. It’s her second and last mission mission that proves to be fatal and tragic, though she refuses to give up any information to the enemy right up until her death.
Lewis Gilbert crafts Carve Her Name with Pride with unobtrusive skill and salutes the bravery of this woman and her strength for her country. As a film, it doesn’t over sensationalise events, rather presents them in serious but absorbing detail in a way that’s dignified and convincing. Foreshadowing is heavily present throughout with various lines of dialogue gaining more relevance as Carve Her Name with Pride continues. The first hour provides the build up to the first mission with the main events that lead to Violette joining by showing events in a brisk and economical fashion, without feeling too quick or too slow. Gilbert’s on form is bringing the foreshadowing of what’s to come and truly comes alive once the missions start. We glimpse how dangerous being a spy is and the moral dilemma of Violette in knowing that every minute could be her last . This helps it build to a powerful climax that’s hard to agass from your thoughts. The black and white presents events with a certain realism that’s pretty impressive and never loses sight of the serious dangers involved in spying and Violette’s immense dedication. As we know the eventual fate of the main character, a level of gloom is apparent. But it never overshadows things and makes them constantly miserable, rather it is more inspiring to watch someone do something to help their country in its time of need. An emotive score highlights the ups and downs of War and how events can take sharp turning points for those trying to help.
The ace in the hole is Virginia McKenna as Violette; she’s simply wonderful in the part. Getting across the gumption, selflessness, toughness and vulnerability, McKenna shines with her moving delivery and authentic honesty. It’s hard to picture someone else playing Szabo quite as accomplished as Virginia McKenna does or with the same blend of warmth and determination. She’s simply that good and embodies the British way of doing things in a quiet and dignified manner but making one hell of an impact. Paul Scofield compliments her as the agent who knows when to switch off emotions but still retain some level of heart. He’s nicely paired with McKenna and works splendidly and with ease beside her. Jack Warner and Denise Grey have small but nicely judged parts as the parents of Violette, who become concerned at their daughter’s secrecy. Look out for a small but funny role from Bill Owen as one of the training officers who begrudgingly acknowledges the talent of Violette. The biggest highlight though is Virginia McKenna, who is simply unforgettable.
A sober, extremely well mounted and acted war drama that truly honours its subject thanks to Lewis Gilbert’s nuanced direction and Virginia McKenna’s beautiful performance, Carve Her Name with Pride is an excellent tribute to the strength and sacrifice of one very brave woman.