Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom/USA, 1973. Cinévision Ltée, The American Film Theatre. Screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on his play. Cinematography by David Watkin. Produced by Ely A. Landau. Production Design by John Bury. Costume Design by Joan Bridge, Elizabeth Haffenden. Film Editing by Rex Pyke.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Harold Pinter’s dark family satire transferred to Broadway and collected Tony Awards before being captured on film in this absorbing adaptation, with some actors recreating their stage roles and directed on stage and screen by Peter Hall. Paul Rogers is the gruff, angry patriarch of an all male North London household which also contains his more refined chauffeur brother (Cyril Cusack) and his two sons, the slick and mischievous Ian Holm and the meathead pugilist Terence Rigby. The white walls of their plain house almost emphasize the claustrophobia in which they live and to which a prodigal son returns: third brother Michael Jayston comes home after a decade of no contact with his kin, arriving late at night with his wife Vivien Merchant whom they have never met. Introductions are uncomfortable the next morning and Rogers is ambivalent both about his son’s return and this newcomer in his midst. Her presence is at first a threat, then as they get to know her and she reveals lower origins than her frosty demeanor at first suggests, it sparks up competitive one-upmanship among the brothers that takes the tale into a humorously absurd third act. No filmed adaptation of a play, even at its most faithful, recreates the watching of said play, part of the experience of live theatre is your very presence in a room with an audience and actors creating a blaze of energy together, but films like this one provide a very valuable recording of notable, defining performances and for that reason the film is recommended. Peter Hall keeps the script intact and its settings as well, his only cinematic flourishes to indulge in a few very effective lighting schemes and choosing his use of close-ups carefully. He has a gold-star cast with which to play, none of them better than Merchant’s perfectly controlled, sanguine reactions to the increasingly bizarre circumstances she finds herself in, her deep and intelligent eyes soothing us into accepting that we may not fully understand everything that Pinter is saying about the nature of familial relationships, but that we can definitely handle them. As always, the bestial nature of humans (and, specifically, men) poorly hidden behind the paltry veil of civilization is the focus of the author’s work, and it finds itself expressed in such interesting ways here.