Dir. J Lee Thompson, UK, 1957, 93 mins
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Originally released in 1957, some three years before the wave of Kitchen Sink “angry young man” dramas blazed a scorching social realist trail through post-war British cinema, Woman in a Dressing Gown represents an earlier and somewhat more thoughtful and progressive attempt to shine an uncompromising light on the way widespread individual malaise and perceived abandonment led to the fracturing of established social mores. Whilst many Kitchen Sink melodramas suffer from the inherent tension of RADA-trained thespians roughing up to convince as hostile and embittered young loners, Ted Willis’ balanced and sympathetic screenplay combines with J Lee Thompson’s immaculate direction and a tremendous cast to create a far more mature and authentic drama which scrutinizes changing attitudes to gender politics and marital dissatisfaction.
Amy (Mitchell, in a Silver Bear winning performance) is a haphazard house-wife whose scatterbrained clumsiness is at the heart of both her family’s home and their collective yet silent dissatisfaction with life. She burns nearly everything she attempts to cook, keeps the flat in a constant state of chaotic messiness, plays the radio abrasively loudly and, as the film’s title suggests, rarely manages to even change out of her dressing gown over the course of a day. Her husband Jim (Quayle) glides with an apparently saint-like patience through this tumultuous environment, seemingly working long and hard hours to provide for his family. In fact, those hours are spent in the company of his beautiful young secretary Georgie (Syms), with whom he shares a comfortable and idyllic love affair. When Jim finally plucks up the courage to demand a divorce of Amy, her initially civilized and constrained attempts to deal with the situation gradually fall into panic and queasy desperation, and during an encounter with Georgie uncovers a previously untapped fortitude and self-awareness.
The film’s consideration of the entrapment, isolation and loneliness married women had become consigned to in this period is made evident through recurring visual metaphors of imprisonment: the window to Georgie’s flat, the only safe place for the licentious couple, is barred like a prison cell, and similar evocations abound when we view the collapsed Amy through the railings of her bedstead. This sense of imprisonment anticipates later feminist criticism of the role of women in society, yet Amy is ensnared not only by the role that is expected of her, and at which she has no aptitude whatsoever, but also by the suppression of her high level of emotional perception. Though hopelessly inept as a housewife, Amy at first approaches her daily grind with a loquacious breeziness that defies the true tedium of her situation. The most uncomfortable section of the film comes immediately after Jim’s revelation, in which a jittery Amy performs household chores through the night, borrows money from her son and pawns her engagement ring in an attempt to improve her personal appearance and win back her husband: a scheme which ends disastrously with her lying on the floor, a drunken and pitiful wreck. Having done everything possible to preserve the status quo within the limits of prevailing social codes, Amy launches into a heartbreakingly acute deconstruction of the inherent impossibilities of married life and the realities of conjugal love, which the besotted Georgie is simply too inexperienced to understand. It’s a theatrical but brilliant scene in which the worldliness and maturity of married women is conveyed to wonderful effect, and as Amy realises that in fearing loneliness she is only ultimately preserving a different kind of isolation, and having finally fragmented the illusion that established social conventions have forced upon her she attains a glimmer of progressive emotional independence.
The brilliance of Ted Willis’ screenplay and in the three central performances is in the empathy afforded to each character’s situation: no-one is demonized and yet all can be seen as both emotionally conflicted and morally ambivalent. Anthony Quayle’s Jim is a mournful and tortured man torn between familial duty and a passionate young love who might hold the key to his personal happiness and fulfillment. Sylvia Syms gives and sensual yet sensitive performance as Georgie, whose compassionate intelligence is countered by a subtle ruthless streak, and though she regrets the pain she is causing she also acknowledges her selfishness. For Yvonne Mitchell’s bravura and earthy turn as Amy, beginning with doe-eyed coarseness that doesn’t shy away from the character’s moments of grating irritation and ending with a resolute knowingness, all that can be said is that it is a performance which truly evokes the tragic sadness of social and personal confinement.
Woman in a Dressing Gown is back in cinemas from 27th July, and will be available for the first time on DVD on 13th August. Sylvia Syms will be introducing a special screening of the film at the Curzon Mayfair on Sunday July 29th at 2.30pm.