Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) has problems, and her widowed sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) has called a psychiatrist, Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), to the Boston town house she shares with her mother (Gladys Cooper) to see about her. It is Mrs Vale everyone else can see is at the heart of Charlotte's issues, for she brings new meaning to the word "domineering", as she controls every aspect of her daughter's existence and has ensured she will never escape from under her thumb. Or will she? With the doctor's help, and a stay at a sanatorium, she may be able to finally blossom, for all she needs is someone to love her and not drive her into the nervous breakdown which is imminent...
Many reviews, from the time of Now, Voyager to this, called it out for being ridiculous, and denigrated it as a simple soap opera or "woman's picture" as they used to term the films aimed at the female market, almost exclusively melodrama with a strong romantic angle. That certainly summed up what happened here, but it did it a disservice too, for no matter how absurd the plotting was the crucial thing that had to be reckoned with was that nobody in the cast played it as such: they played it as if this was the most sincere story in the world, and Charlotte's stakes were as important as anything a male character would have to go through, which of course they were.
Davis earned an Oscar nomination for this, her most financially successful picture, and maybe should have won, for she was an absolute emotional powerhouse in the role. Her Charlotte's biggest mistake was trying to mark out her own personality and express herself in her own unique fashion: here, with a shipboard romance on a cruise with her harridan mother when she was twenty years old. Her mother, recognising she needed her daughter around, both to support her as a companion and as a punching bag to assert her own dominance over another human being to bolster her ego, put paid to any kind of romance and Charlotte has suffered ever since, denied any love at all.
She struck a pitiful figure, resigned to her fate of a lonely life but in reality crushed inside and feeling the strain of a thwarted time on this Earth, so when her saviour turns out to be Jaquith (Rains the epitome of reason and kindness, a lovely performance we see too little of) Charlotte plucks up the courage to take another cruise - without mother, in this instance. The notion that psychiatry would be the answer to any mental troubles you may have was a popular one in nineteen-forties Hollywood, as Freudianism took hold in a wide range of pictures which can look quaint from a perspective of a century later, but rarely was it as convincing as it was in Now, Voyager, probably because Jaquith's methods were so understanding and importantly did not feature anything contentious like a lobotomy or locking up in a straitjacket.
The film was also honest enough to concede that psychology was not going to be a panacea, and the patient still had to live with themselves and their more harmful thoughts whether they manage to cope with themselves or not, but Charlotte has a stroke of luck when she meets the unhappily married Jerry Durrance on the ship, also taking a holiday. They hit it off immediately, despite her lack of confidence and shy reservations, and soon it is clear they are a perfect match, but he will never leave his wife and she has her mother, who she is tied to financially, to return to. Paul Henreid played the warm and comforting but intelligent enough to be self-aware Jerry, not that he was ever content in romantic roles, but his was a case of being best suited to that which he was reluctant to embrace.
That's an unfortunately common state of affairs for plenty of movie stars – he would be the ultimate self-sacrificing, dashing and noble male in Casablanca the same year, which he shot back to back with this, incredibly. But it was Davis's film and she knew it: she had demanded the lead, and practically called the shots on the production, in particular bringing director Irving Rapper onto the project, possibly because she knew she could order him around and get her way without much resistance. When in a plot contrivance Charlotte finds that if she cannot have Jerry, she can save his daughter (Janis Wilson) from the same lifelong ordeal she has endured, it should be as absurd as those unwilling to lose themselves in Now, Voyager insist it is, yet the sense that if you cannot save yourself, you can save others is a part of its appeal and resonance. If you ever doubted the benefits of star power, watch Davis in this, she is magnificent, and if you don't get teary in that final scene where Charlotte and Jerry agree to be terribly grown up about their personal crisis, you have Mrs Vale's heart of stone. Max Steiner's score is an all-time classic for a classic movie.
[The Criterion Collection Blu-ray couldn't be better. Those features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 featuring actor Bette Davis
Interview with actor Paul Henreid from 1980
New selected-scene commentary on the film's score by scholar Jeff Smith
New interview with film critic Farran Smith Nehme on the making of the film
New interview with costume historian Larry McQueen
Two radio adaptations from 1943 and 1946
Plus: An essay by scholar Patricia White and a 1937 reflection on acting by Davis.]