It’s an ensemble piece that doesn’t exactly rise to the greatness of the book. However, you’ve got lots of stars and 3 great performances.
But who does Simone Signoret play? She’s La condesa (The Countess, in English; her name is not mentioned in the film), a rich woman held under arrest, being transported from South America to Europe; she’s a big believer in the freedom of the people and I’m not sure if the films tries to portray her as someone with socialist ideas. On the ship, she has a romance with the ship’s doctor (an excellent performance by Oskar Werner).
She makes her big entrance 15 minutes into the film, appearing like a larger than life person, a high society lady, it’s an entrance worthy of a queen. However, as we get a closer look at her, we discover that she’s a normal human being, a kind person, a tired woman struggling with a drug addiction and rather terrified of what the future holds in store for her.
Simone Signoret uses her acting experience to make the best of the screentime and although the screenplay doesn’t offer her too many big, loud moments she delivers a very sincere performance. Of all the characters from the film (and trust me, there’s lots of them), she the one you feel closest to, because she’s the most interesting, intriguing and dead honest. Simone’s biggest achievement (and smart acting choice) is that she doesn’t look like she’s trying too hard. Her performance is subtle and her lines (sometimes too long or difficult to read) are acted perfectly, with grace and easiness.
Another role for her in the film is to be the love interest of the ship’s doctor, the real leading character. Unexpectedly for me, the romance works! There’s a love story there between two very different people (she’s so chill and direct, he’s so apparently stiff and formal) that share one big thing: loneliness. Though the odds are against them (she’s going to jail in Spain, he’s going back to his wife in Germany), the love story seems so natural and there’s something pure and likeable seeing them together.
We are recommended however to ask ourselves: does she like him or tries to seduce him just because she wants him to keep giving her the drugs? Even if the question pops up in our mind, we soon realize that’s not true. Yes, the countess is an addict – a classy one :D – but the kindness she shows him is so honest and (almost) maternal, that, despite needing him as a doctor, she really feels attracted to this man. Signoret’s face is so expressive when it comes to showing us sadness or sarcasm. Her eyes tell us about the despair and the loneliness and also the worry that she has for him once she finds out he has an ill heart.
Simone gives a short performance with an essential role in the film: she brings class to it and represents the love interest of the leading man. Though it’s an unusual love story, Signoret puts all the effort in making it look so effortless (!) and natural that you buy it immediately and hope for a happy ending. I have a soft spot for her also because the countess who has nothing left to lose was my favourite character in the book. And she does her justice. It’s great casting and it’s always nice to see an experienced actress giving another solid performance. for her, due to the limited time on screen. A criterion I also use is a nominee’s capacity to carry her own film; she would’ve, had she been given the opportunity.