Lease of Life

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Lease of Life
UK release poster
Directed by Charles Frend
Written by Eric Ambler
Frank Baker
Patrick Jenkins
Produced by Michael Balcon
Starring Robert Donat
Kay Walsh
Adrienne Corri
Denholm Elliott
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Peter Tanner
Music by Alan Rawsthorne
Distributed by General Film Distributors
Release date
  • 19 October 1954 (1954-10-19)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Lease of Life is a 1954 British drama film made by Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Frend. [1] The film was designed as a star vehicle for Robert Donat in his return to the screen after a three-year absence. [2]



Rev. William Thorne is the vicar of the village of Hinton St. John, living with his wife Vera and his daughter Susan, a gifted pianist who receives guidance from Martin Blake. Although the church is the focus of the local community, the Thornes live a frugal life and struggle financially. Vera lives vicariously through her daughter, determined to ensure that Susan's talent not be wasted. However the Thornes cannot afford to pay for Susan's accommodations in London if she wins a scholarship.

Local elderly farmer Mr. Sproatly asks Thorne to visit his sick bed. Sproatly wants his son, and not his wife, to inherit his money when he dies. He is about to entrust Rev. Thorne with the cash when Sproatly's wife enters and the plan is abandoned.

While working on a sermon, Thorne collapses in his library. His doctor informs him that he has less than a year to live. He visits Gilchester Cathedral to contemplate and the cathedral's organ music rings in his head on the bus ride home. Back in town, two women discuss the sexton Mr. Spooner's drunkenness and Rev. Thorne promises to deal with him appropriately.

Thorne returns to Sproatly and takes a leather case containing a will and large amount of cash, but Sproatly's wife challenges him.

Thorne reevaluates his life and those of his parishioners, and he finds himself happier than before. He adopts a tolerant attitude to the minor indiscretions of his parishioners and ignores the village gossip.

At a boys' school to deliver a speech, Thorne tears his prepared notes in and delivers an improvised sermon about disobeying rules and enjoying life. The boys love the sermon, but the dean, headmaster and assembled parents consider it rebellious. A reporter prints the story and word spreads. Thorne's congregation swells, but he knows that many of the new members are merely seeking sensationalism.

Thorne feels free to speak honestly about his beliefs and demonstrates to his parishioners that religion is not a matter of blind adherence to a fixed set of rules, but a freedom to act according to one's conscience. However, some of his words are misunderstood and deemed provocative and controversial.

There also remains the worry about how to secure the necessary funds to pay for Susan's tuition at a music college, and fate happens to put temptation in the way.

When Sproatly dies, Thorne checks the bag of money and finds it £100 short, exactly the amount that Vera had given to Susan, claiming she had sold her jewels. Thorne confronts Vera and she confesses, claiming to have merely borrowed the money. Mrs. Sproatly challenges him about the money in the churchyard after her husband's funeral. Thorne collapses in the church. The reporter who had been covering the story tells Vera that the editor has agreed to pay £100 for Thorne's articles.

Thorne's spirit is revived and he heads to his evening service, stopping to discuss the merits of acting for the living rather than the dead with the gravedigger.



Exterior sequences for the film were shot in Beverley (East Yorkshire) and the nearby village of Lund (Hinton St. John) in the East Riding of Yorkshire. [3] The railway scenes in the film were filmed at Windsor & Eton Central station. The church scenes were filmed in Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire.

In common with a number of other Ealing films of the era, the film focuses on a specific English milieu, in this case a Yorkshire village and its nearby cathedral city. The film is unique in the Ealing canon in having religion as its dominant theme.[ citation needed ]


Upon the film's American release, critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised Robert Donat's performance but was disappointed with the script: "It is a role charged with selfless devotion to others and to a high ideal, and Mr. Donat imbues it with such fervor and gentle sincerity as to recall his touching performance of the old teacher at an English boys' school. There is about his dying parson an air of fine genteel poverty and quiet decay. Mr. Donat makes the gallant preacher a man to be pitied and admired. However, we fear that Eric Ambler, who wrote the script, has let him down toward the end and permitted the quality of his character to be rather cheaply compromised. ... Mr. Ambler has compelled him to give in to a shabby dodge to save his foolish wife from shame. And he has come to this wretched embarrassment through the melodramatic device of some 'borrowed' money. The whole thing goes fuzzy and quixotic—somewhat like the parson himself—toward the end. It is not a satisfactory climax for a sentimental drama that Mr. Ambler has contrived." [4]

Leslie Halliwell said: "Somewhat depressing but well-acted drama with excellent village atmosphere." [5]

The Radio Times Guide to Films gave the film 3/5 stars, writing: "Thriller specialist Eric Ambler makes a mawkish mess of what is essentially a domestic drama but through the gentle fidelity of his performance, Donat creates a decent and dignified character." [6]

In British Sound Films David Quinlan called the film a "sincere, quiet, close-to-dull drama.'' [7]


Donat was nominated for Best British Actor at the 1955 British Academy Film Awards. [8]

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  1. "Lease of Life". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 8 November 2023.
  2. "Mr. Donat has a new Lease of Life" Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1954. Retrieved 27 July 2010
  3. "Yorkshire on Film - Lease of Life". Dalesman. 78 (1): 28. April 2016. ISSN   0011-5800.
  4. Crowther, Bosley (10 February 1956). "Screen: 'Lease of Life'". The New York Times . p. 18.
  5. Halliwell, Leslie (1989). Halliwell's Film Guide (7th ed.). London: Paladin. p. 588. ISBN   0-586-08894-6.
  6. Radio Times Guide to Films (18th ed.). London: Immediate Media Company. 2017. p. 532. ISBN   9780992936440.
  7. Quinlan, David (1984). British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928–1959. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd. p. 337. ISBN   0-7134-1874-5.
  8. BAFTA Best British Actor nominations - 1954 Retrieved 27 July 2010