A rather banal argument serves as a catalyst for the narrative trajectory and conflict throughout the entire film: the husband, a physician, specialty not disclosed, wishes to spend his holiday in a remote shore town, fishing, communing with the tide, and the wife wishes to be left alone, amid her comfortable urban life. That a mermaid film opens with such a marital dispute is not at all surprising; where Miranda delivers some nuance and twist is in the adaptation of the classic mythological creature and her pivotal role in enhancing balance and equity to the relationship, as well as strengthening the foundational love and respect requisite for matrimony. While still-entrenched patronizing patriarchal standards of sexual seduction and power dialectics within sexual relationships, whether or not they are emotionally intimate, prevail, for a mid-twentieth century film, there is a female empowerment lean. In an age predating institutional feminist theory, and cultural awareness of the social, political, and economic implications of challenging male dominance, finding a film like this refreshing seems at odds with its generally quaint and exasperating messages. As a fan of old Hollywood, and a cynic who is willing to state to all who will listen that, even more frustrating, are contemporary films wherein sexual politics have not budged, at all, I found Miranda delightfully agreeable.
During his rural holiday, while coasting along the waves, fishing rod in hand, the husband, Dr. Paul Martin, is caught by Miranda the mermaid, plucked from his dry boat under the water's surface and into her balmy cave home. An overt reversal in the role of fisher-fished, this scene is also a paradigm shift for the mermaid myth: rather than traditional intoxicating but malevolent lure, she is proactive, seizing an opportunity, by literally seizing a man she finds attractive and then subsequently bartering with him. It is a fair deal, his freedom, for a few days of her own liberation from the sea, exploring the realm of humans in London. While Dr. Martin is a bit distressed when sequestered underwater, worried about the baser of Maslov needs, breathable oxygen, adequate nutrition, he does warm to her advances. Once they agree, however, to the London excursion, Miranda guised as some serious patient, his wife, Clare, is nearly forgotten and he is firmly entranced by her blissful ignorance and coquettish looks.
Throughout her escapades in London, Miranda succeeds in ensnaring all the men she encounters, much to the obvious chagrin of their partners. Clare, immediately skeptical of the patient ruse upon meeting the mermaid and realizing she is young and beautiful, is rather flexible, all things considered. Welcoming the patient into her home, accommodating her obviously bizarre needs, Clare acknowledges that her husband's attentions are divided but adopts a listen-and-learn response, rather than aggressively attacking him. The couple's chauffeur and general manservant, a quaint artifact of bygone times for the upper middle class, also succumbs to the allure of the mermaid. Conveniently in a relationship with the maid, he fumbles to spend time with Miranda, while his partner fumes and bemoans his fickle love. Clare's friend Isobel, the Martin's neighbor, also finds herself in a relationship predicament, as her fiance and budding artist also falls prey to Miranda.
Much of the film's comedic conflict lays in the ignorance of the male characters; so enthralled are they with Miranda's beauty and her exoticism, they are blind to the fact that she flirts with them and any other man she encounters equally. She admits to admiring them each for various individual reasons, but the notion of monogamy and fidelity to any single one of them is a laughable to her. When her trysts with all three men are exposed and her true identity finally revealed to Clare and the other women, and she is threatened with broad public exposure, rather than lay in wait to become a victim, a scientific novelty and general cultural oddity, Miranda flees. Her resilience and her agency is commendable; she had her cake, ate of it, and left without paying the bill. While most widely disseminated, popular contemporary romantic comedies seem to continually enforce that a woman's sexual satisfaction must exist within the confines of a traditional heteronormative construct, Miranda, in spite of being backward in other overt senses, offers a progressive view of sexual satisfaction, male and female. Without wholly disregarding the value of intimate relationships, the film emphasizes that flirtation, seduction, sex can just be fun, while also reinforcing that still no choice is without ramifications.
Perhaps a bit insensitive to the women who were hurt by her antics, Miranda does nonetheless seem to understand that what she seeks, a playful romantic romp, differs from the relationships already established that she is disrupting. Despite the dishonesty and the lapses in loyalty, each couple ends the film with a stronger relationship, more firmly rooted in trust, more open. That such breaches in general heteronormative relationship code, trust and fidelity, are treated with an open-mind on the part of the female partner in a film decades old is liberating. Mythology and fantasy aside, perhaps the plot is rather unbelievable; in reality, such understanding and forgiveness may be more rare. The optimist in me, sometimes small and cowardly compared to my inner realist, wants to believe in a happily ever after for each of the characters, despite their obvious flaws. Fulfillment for Miranda, despite her selfishness and capricious nature. Fulfillment for Clare, despite her lapse into the vindictive. Fulfillment for Dr. Martin, despite his lies, his scheming.
(image taken from Flippin Your Fins)