Stephen Franklin, son of a parson (not a priest, mind you) and enjoyer of Elgar, is about as self-serious an eighteen-year-old boy can get. Self-serious to the point of silliness, as his mother is quick to point out when she interrupts his deep listening of the English composer’s The Dream of Gerontius. The moment’s humor is not altogether obvious, since it is surrounded by Stephen’s high-minded musings over God and mortality and the soul in relation to the musical notation unfurled before him. But it’s there, and serves to deflate Stephen’s supercilious self-conception in the form of earthly reality’s interruption of the ideal. It is this tension that is among the film’s primary concerns, and is further buttressed by the boy’s prayers being quickly set aside when the swaggering, bare-armed milkman arrives to their doorstep with his delivery.
That Stephen harbors lust for the milkman is seemingly not yet clear to him, although it is only one of many essential facts concerning his self that will eventually be made clear, whether he likes it or not, amidst the backdrop of the Worcestershire countryside and the imposition of its various institutions: Church and public school and the provincial mind. […]