Life in the fictional Welsh community of Dolwyn has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, until the modern world intrudes in the sinister form of Rob (writer/director Emlyn Williams), an agent of the Cambrian Water Company, whose presence heralds the end of Dolwyn’s peaceful existence. Rob has ostensibly come to persuade the cash-strapped village patron Lady Dolwyn to give up her entitlement to the land, in order that the entire valley be flooded to provide fresh water for Liverpool. But he is also working to his own agenda; a humiliation he suffered at the hands of the villagers while still a child has left him with a bitter resentment that he has carried through his whole life, and now he intends to deliver a cruel judgement on his tormentors.
Meanwhile, Gareth (Richard Burton, in his screen debut) has also returned to Dolwyn after fleeing his job in the big city. Unlike Rob, Gareth’s reasons for coming home are entirely benign – alienated by the hectic pace of life in Liverpool, he longs for the comforts of home with adopted mother Merri (Edith Evans) and brother. But he is soon to discover that everything he values about life in the village will be literally swept away.
Emlyn Williams’ first and only feature as director touches on issues of class, morality and urbanisation. Although not a true story, it was inspired at least in part by the damming of the Elan Valley in the 19th Century, and also foreshadows the flooding of the village of Tryweryn in 1965 – an event which was greeted with rather more angry resistance than seen in Dolwyn, and is still regarded by many as a tremendous injustice.
The tone of Last Days Of Dolwyn is not one of anger, more a kind of sad resignation at the inevitability of change, summed up by a rather poetic soliloquy delivered by Hugh Griffith’s Minister: ‘Under the doors, into the houses, in at the windows…Dolwyn will be drowned.’ In actual fact, most of the villagers seem perfectly content to sign away their leases and begin a new life in the city – it’s left up to the viewer to decide whether this decision is a short-sighted one or not.
At its heart, the film is the story of Merri, the elderly widow who, through a matter of circumstance, becomes the sole obstacle in the scheming of Rob and his employers, and it is Edith Evans’ moving performance that gives the film its emotional core. For Merri, who has never been any further than the valley itself, Liverpool is so far away it might as well be America, so the idea of the entire village being uprooted and moved there is almost incomprehensible. Her initial sadness and confusion gives way to resolve, as she attempts to deal with the problem on her own terms – and in a sense she eventually does, although the outcome is not one you might expect.
Initially, the film seems as if it’s going to be a more savage critique of the upper classes than it eventually turns out to be; in that respect it pulls it’s punches somewhat. By having the villain of the piece be an outcast from the community out for revenge, rather than his blustering employer Lord Lancashire, it feels as though the blame is being shifted away from those with whom responsibility for the whole situation ultimately lies. The aristocracy are portrayed more as dispassionate observers, displaying only mild curiosity at the upheaval going on in the village – like the guests at Lady Dolwyn’s ball, largely oblivious to the fact that Dolwyn itself is being dismantled around them.
Burton’s character role is not as prominent as one might expect, and mainly takes the form of a romantic subplot that feels a little underdeveloped, and in fact he only comes into conflict with Rob in the last few moments of the film. Williams seems to draw a parallel between the lives of the two men, both orphans, one receiving the benefits of growing up in a loving family, the other scorned and cast out. It leaves us to ponder on whether Rob would have become as cruel and mercenary had he been afforded the same kindness as Gareth, and whether the village might’ve been spared its fate had it not been so quick to turn him away.
The film ends on a surprising twist that aims to present a more morally ambiguous ending to the proceedings, although I felt it was a little at odds with tone up to that point. The Last Days Of Dolwyn is a film I would recommend on the strength of the performances, particularly Evans, although fans of Burton may be disappointed by his relatively small amount of screen time.