Another Year (2010) & The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)
As I was watching The Romantic Englishwoman on Tuesday evening, I had thoughts of Elizabeth Taylor. The Romantic Englishwoman is a Joseph Losey picture, who made the now revered 1960's pictures The Servant and Accident as well as the fun, supercamp Modesty Blaise. We've featured him here with The Go-Between, but he made a couple of curiosities with Elizabeth Taylor in the late 1960's. Some of the weirdness of the Taylor pictures Boom! and Secret Ceremony could have elevated The Romantic Englishwoman.
Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson heat the film up as the successful author and the bored housewife who's looking for an escape from upper-class domestic hell. She has an implied affair with a drug running poet (a very European Helmet Burger). In reality, it's all faintly ridiculous. Tom Stoppard's script, when dialogue finally arrives, is sharp. A Servant-like ménage à trois scenario is played out, but unlike the previous Losey picture, The Romantic Englishwoman fizzles out. A slow start, strong middle and a whimper. To be honest, this is average Losey.
So, onto Wednesday. As I'm getting ready to pick up the cinema tickets to go see the new Mike Leigh film, Another Year, the internet breaks the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death. It's easy to forget with Taylor, who in later life was more like this ailing patron saint of lost souls and worthy causes, that she was a very fine actress. Yes, people will talk of the glamor and an old-fashioned sense of beauty (Taylor was probably my first on-screen crush), but don't forget the reason we care: some excellent films.
I was consumed with Taylor entering the cinema, but Another Year wiped away such thoughts. Mike Leigh just gets better. Losey and Leigh both deal with class and its effects on others, often from different perspectives. Another Year's themes on mortality, on the passing of time, loneliness and mental illness sound heavy, and at times Another Year has a graceful solemnity. But this is a film about the closeness of family too. The class divide within a family is dealt with, but nothing here is cliché. Leigh's script and direction brings the most mundane aspects of life into sharp focus, at the same time portraying a poignancy that stays with you. Another Year is a film that ruminates on themes that truly matter to us. Go see Another Year, it's what we need from cinema to understand a little more about ourselves.
Through a combination of co-incidence and preference we ended up spending the last two evenings watching English cinema. Both Another Year and The Romantic Englishwoman have a long-term relationship at the center of events. Similarly, they both discuss a woman's unhappiness: one from the perspective of a bored feminist wife of the mid-1970s, the other in relation to her failed relationships and her current loneliness.
The loss of a loved one makes romantic cinema – tolerating their idiosyncrasies years on end does not.
Usually, long relationships do not make such interesting films. They cannot be romantic comedies, because, tragically, long-term love is not considered romantic (or comic for that matter). The longer my personal relationship is lasting, the more tired and one-sided traditional romantic films seem – they end at the beginning. I am interested in depictions of the difficulties, the companionship, the changes, the infatuations, infidelities, friends outside the couple and so on. I found myself delighted that Another Year and The Romantic Englishwoman had reading-in-bed scenes. That to me is a depiction of reality (and it is also quite romantic).
The Romantic Englishwoman is an even better idea than its realization. The wife of a rich writer is frustrated not so much by her real life, but by the freedom she discovers she should be pursuing. There's a social question: How to liberate a wife in 1975? Let her have an affair with a French crook – she'll run back to the husband in the end. But there are murkier tones here: the husband is jealous to begin with, the wife suspects an affair with their au-pair, the husband urges his wife to be unfaithful so that he can write about it...I have a sneaky feeling that some level of understanding was lacking from the makers of the film towards the wife.
In Another Year such lack of empathy is nowhere to be found. At the end the camera draws the audience out in the middle of a dinner by focusing on the confused and disappointed face of Mary (Lesley Manville). The sound disappears, there is no music to tune our emotions to. Yet, it is not a cruel and cold drawing out. Mike Leigh has always depicted the life of the lower classes and the middle class. That must be the reason why I feel he is dealing with reality – I relate. Hollywood films rarely bother with anyone poor or average unless they want to contextualize. Like long-term relationships, getting by with very little is not sexy. Lets just say that although sexy is fun, a range of other feelings and experiences are important too. That's what I've learned.