Ann Todd was not much of an actress as there never seems to be much of a drive in her performances rather she often seemed quite content just to kind of be there. Luckily this does mean she would usually not be actively bad so to speak, and if there was a great performance around her she definitely would let that performance flow freely. That was certainly true for Claude Rains in The Passionate Friends, and here in this film we have the other Mr. Jordan, James Mason. Mason is only barely lead in this film and if one were to put him in supporting I would not raise much of argument. Nevertheless Mason has the second largest role in the film as the second cousin and legal guardian of Todd's Francesca.
Nicholas is a bitter man who who has a limp and seems to not care for much of anyone Francesca included. Although Mason wasn't particularly old at the time that never comes into play though as Mason makes Nicholas's palatable from the instance he is on screen. Nicholas is not a villain so to speak as he's more of a colossal jerk. Mason is one of my favorite actors though because of how he is able to enliven any scene he is in with his mere presence which he definitely does here. Many scenes require Mason just to come in and say a few cold dismissive words, really Nicholas could have been pretty forgettable, but Mason delivers every line with such an fierce cynicism that you can feel Nicholas's hatred toward the world as almost an underlying element in the film in every scene.
Nicholas is not all bad though as he finds that Francesca has a talent for the piano something he also knows although only well enough to be a teacher to Francesca. Mason is good in these scenes as well because he really does not lighten up still carrying that intensity as Nicholas just been bitter for too long to ever truly be happy. Mason does adjust his performance every so slightly to accentuate the passion that Nicholas does have for the piano, although even that he mostly hides in his fierce hatred of all things. Mason creates the right dynamic though to show how Nicholas would pressure Francesca to become a better pianist yet still never comes even close to becoming a good mentor. Nicholas always remains a pretty bad mentor and that is really part of the fun with Mason's performance.
I probably would not have said the film was decent enough if it were not for Mason's somewhat infrequent appearances in the film as he really does make the movie with his portrayal of Nicholas. He completely asserts himself in terms of meeting the demands of the role which is to show how Nicholas could drive Francesca to suicide. Mason definitely brings the needed viciousness and coldness to show this, but he does manage to more than that in his usual Mason way as it is quite entertaining to watch him perform in the scene. My favorite of his being when Francesca tells Nicholas she is being married and Nicholas cuts her down by completely ignoring her. Mason is so brilliantly precise in the moment that even in seeming ignorance can Nicholas seem brutal in his coldness.
It definitely would have been nice if the film had been about Nicholas, or if the film had frankly spent much more time in creating the teacher student dynamic rather than rushing through it then there probably would have been potential for a truly great performance from James Mason. Mason unfortunately only has so much to work with here as Nicholas is both a bit underwritten and underused throughout the film, and this becomes exceedingly noticeable with the ending of the film when out of nowhere they decide Nicholas and Francesca were meant for each. Now Mason handles the final scene well naturally inserting just a little bit of regret within the bitter man, but he hardly could make that ludicrous revelation work. This is still very compelling work from Mason, and I do think the whole film would have been disposable if it were not for him.