Before he directed and starred in his marvelous Henry V in 1944, Laurence Olivier made several propaganda films for the war effort: That Hamilton Woman (1941) with his wife Vivien Leigh, in which Napoleon is a clear stand-in for Hitler, The Invaders (1941, 49th Parallel in the UK), with actual Nazis as Nazis, various Ministry of Information shorts, and The Demi-Paradise (1943). The latter, directed by Anthony Asquith, was intended to rouse British support for the Soviets in the wake of the 1941 German invasion, which abruptly terminated the German–Soviet non-aggression pact. (The title is from John of Gaunt’s deathbed speech in Act II of Richard II.) Olivier plays an Englishman’s idea of a Russian: officious and overwhelmingly critical of British reserve and “cruelty.” The screenplay (by Anatole de Grunwald) turns the proletariat Soviet engineer into a bourgeois provincialist — what has always been said about Englishmen — but Olivier is strangely listless. He overlooks the comic potential of the character, which is odd, considering Olivier’s triumphs in so many comic roles in the theater, from Sir Toby Belch to Sergius (Arms and the Man) to Justice Shallow. The artist who so successfully tapped the wit in a madman like Richard Gloucester should have, one would think, been inclined to play up the humor in Ivan Kouznetsoff. Olivier’s halting, overstudied delivery is perhaps a miscalculation. The effect on his characterization turns an engineer into an artistic temperament and gives the impression that Olivier has forgotten his lines. This may have been Olivier’s idea of Slavic dispiritedness.
Despite its occasional warm charm, including a lovely performance by Penelope Dudley-Ward and a brief bit by Leslie Henson in a music-hall number, the movie is prosaic and at least thirty minutes too long. A year later, Olivier’s heroic phase reached its artistic and commercial apex with Henry V, Shakespeare’s emblematic patriotic achievement and the British film industry’s glorious tribute to English empire.