Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ring of Bright Water: An Otter Delight

Mij the otter.
In 2005, the newspaper The Daily Telegraph called Ring of Bright Water “one of the best-loved British films of all time.” And yet, this unusual, charming 1969 tale about a man and an otter remains an obscurity in the U.S.

Bill Travers stars as Graham Merrill, a London resident who spots a playful otter in a pet store window on his way to work. Over the next few days, an inexplicable bond forms between the two and Graham winds up with a pet otter he names Mij. Otters and city life do not mix, so Graham makes a major life decision and moves to rural Scotland.

Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.
Graham befriends Mary (Virginia McKenna), a small town doctor, and lives a quiet life with his otter along the coast. His tranquility, though, comes to a crashing end when tragedy strikes.

Ring of Bright Water was loosely based on Gavin Maxwell's autobiographical book of the same title. A colleague gave Maxwell an otter in 1956 and he raised it in rural Scotland. He became close friends with poet Kathleen Raine; she wanted a romantic relationship, but he did not. It was one of her poems that inspired the title of Maxwell's first work about living with otters. That book, Ring of Bright Water (1960), was a hugely popular and critical success. Maxwell wrote two sequels: The Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1968).

Gavin Maxwell and otter.
Maxwell's life would make an interesting film biography, but that's not the purpose of the movie adaptation. It focuses on the otters (there are some wild ones in addition to Mij) and they make for fascinating subjects with their canine-like muzzles, grunting sounds, and graceful movements when swimming. The rural countryside and windswept beaches are picturesque as well. The whole visual experience comes across as incredibly idyllic.

Of course, it doesn't always make sense. After Graham quits his London job, it's unclear how he makes a living in Scotland. At one point in the film, Graham becomes concerned with being able to feed Mij, but wouldn't that have been an even bigger problem when they lived in the city? And while I am no expert on aquariums, I'm not sure one could make one big enough for a swimming otter out of driftwood and scrap pieces of glass.

A curious Mij examines a suitcase.
Stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were a real-life married couple, made a more renowned animal film three years earlier with Born Free (1966). That picture provided a juicy role for McKenna, so it's Travers who gets the spotlight this time around. A tall, rugged actor, Travers knows how to play off the adorable otters...I mean, you can't upstage a playful otter slithering in the sand or cavorting with a dog. Travers also co-wrote the screenplay and, in real life, he and his wife became great animal preservation activists.

Ring of Bright Water pales next to Born Free--but there's no shame in that, as the latter ranks among the finest films ever made about the bond behind humans and animals. Taken on its own, Ring is a rewarding look at one man's fascination with one of nature's most fun-loving creatures.

4 comments:

  1. I have not seen nor thought of this charmer in ages. Otters have such personality. Once, at the Toronto Zoo there were some normally stodgy old beavers cavorting for the crowd. My younger sister commented "You'd think they were otters!"

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  2. I read the book as a child, but I don't think I've ever seen the movie. Will look for it – thanks!

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  3. This is such a charming film and one gets to sample a bit of London and Scotland at the same time. How lovely!

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  4. My sister and I watched this last year and really enjoyed it, especially hearing Val Doonican sing the opening/closing credits. It has a nice gentle pace. There are a LOT of films that have gained popularity in the UK and yet are still unknown in America. The Belstone Fox is another great UK children's film that hasn't been shown here ( and, like Ring of Bright Water, has a sad ending ).

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