The Cinder Path (1994)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I have had the opportunity to see several films based on Catherine Cookston's best-selling novels and never once have I been impressed. Perhaps it's due to the fact that she empathizes with the underdog despite the fact that he or she is villainous by their own intentions. Maybe it's the fact that "true love" should always win despite marital circumstances, and that never once are her heroes pressed to forgive rather than seek revenge. Thus said, The Cinder Path is pretty standard par.
In a little town somewhere in the British countryside, life is fairly normal to those who pass by... but for those who come to stay, chilling would be the most apt word to describe the home of Charlie McFell (Lloyd Owen). His abusive, adulterous and cruel father takes a strong stand for himself, abusing his unhappy wife and fretful sister, laying the switch to the child whenever he gets out of line, and even going so far as to inflict punishment on the servants when they dare cross him. Those deserving of punishment are taken to the path behind the house where the cinders are dropped and forced to crawl on bare hands and knees down the long expanse of jagged rock. Cruelty breeds contempt and soon all members of the household grow to loathe him, although few would dare stand against him. His latest victim is the newest member of the stable crew, who bears a grudge against the family despite Charlie's compassionate apologies and attempts to make right the situation. As he grows older, the situation grows increasingly worse. The pressures for Charlie to wed the beautiful but deceitful Victoria Chapmen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are coming full force.
Their parents are favorable toward the match, since it would create an alliance between their lands and estates... but the truth is, Victoria's younger sister Nellie (Maria Miles) has secretly loved Charlie since childhood. Blinded by Victoria's beauty, he is unable to see the truth of what she truly is... a sly, cunning and devious creature who twists men to use for her own advantage. But a love triangle becomes the least of his problems when revenge comes full-force upon the family, leaving devastation behind. The head stableman Arthur (Ralph Ineson) has heard of old man McFell's wicked plans involving his sister Polly and takes action to protect her. Charlie is just in time to witness a provoked riding accident that unintentionally manages to successfully kill McFell. Knowing the scandal and questions that will follow and also aware of general prejudice toward his father, Charlie agrees to cover up the truth; to make it appear as it was meant to be -- an accident.
However, little known to the two murderers, their act has been witnessed by the very stable hand who was dealt a cruel punishment in the cinder path. And with the pressing and upcoming war against the Germans, Charlie finds himself caught between the truth and deception from every angle. Although it professes to be a romance, The Cinder Path is more the story of human evil and the desire for revenge than a tale of love. I found the story sinister in intention and without any redeeming value. Victoria is a spoiled brat who gives herself freely to any man that comes along and cheats on Charlie regularly after their marriage. Nellie becomes an alcoholic and nearly drinks herself to oblivion. Arthur seems punished enough by the casualties of war for his evil deed when he winds up no longer entirely whole; and Charlie's sister turns on him partway through and swindles him out of his inheritance. Everyone's a cad and there's no one to root for.
Content wise, language is moderate, mostly containing uses of "My God!" Violence, however, comes in Spades with warfare, verbal and physical abuse, cruelty, and a riding accident in which a man's head is struck upon a rock, instantly killing him. A woman is threatened with being strangled. Victoria has men in and out of the house after her separation from her husband; once she and an officer of the army are caught in the act of kissing and embracing. Nellie and Charlie kiss and embrace numerous times before his divorce becomes final. (It's still adultery.) Victoria does get what she deserves in the end and Charlie learns he's not the failure that he thought he was. His strength comes with maturity, but is sometimes ill-used, although he proves a kind man and surprisingly benevolent in the case of his morally-skewed wife. He risks everything to save a man's life and is later almost killed in the war. In closing, I find a lot of things morally wrong with this story -- everyone gets away with their sins; hatefulness is repaid by hate. Even Gone With the Wind, with its on-the-line story has more value than The Cinder Path. It makes one wonder if cruelty, violence, and a depressing climax are what make a classic.