The Hireling (1973)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

, 1973. , . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Class stratification goes hand in hand with emotional repression in this expertly directly, scintillating drama by Alan Bridges, co-winner of the top prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. is superb as Lady Franklin, a gentry woman from Bath who is released from psychiatric care after having suffered a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Fearful of rejoining the outside world, she finds a friendly kindness in the hired driver Ledbetter () who is hired to drive her from the institution to her mother’s home, where she resides until ready to once again take up her country seat at her husband’s estate.

Lady Franklin immediately begins hiring Ledbetter to drive her places regularly, their conversation bolstering her back to good spirits, inspiring her to take her responsibility in the community seriously when he suggests she donate a prize cup to the boxing club that he mentors in his spare time. The friendship that develops between these two does a great deal for Ledbetter as well, a World War I veteran who has gone into business for himself and is beginning to feel the pangs of hope that a post-war, allegedly now classless Britain seems to be promising.

Affection for the lady in question develops but, unable to express it properly thanks to generations of separation between their worlds, his attempts at intimacy come out as fabrications about his personal life, which are expressed with such subtle unease by Shaw that one does not need to see the proof of his fictions that arrive at the end of the film to know he’s being untruthful. Lady Franklin, however, begins a much more appropriate romance with another war veteran who is seeking political office, Captain Cantrip (), and it creates a great deal of conflict in the heart of a man whose chance at upwardly mobile success depends on his suppressing his human feelings.

While undeniably destroying any claims of Britain’s having rearranged its class system as utter nonsense, Wolf Mankowitz’s very crisp screenplay allows character and drama to take precedence over political screed and, as a result, the message is that much better absorbed. A host of devastating supporting performances, including a terrific as our heroine’s concerned but just-ghoulish-enough mother, round out a world that is intoxicating, elegant but airless, as if to take your place in it would be to join a beautiful tableau that then devours you whole.

Adapted from a novel by L.P. Hartley, whose The Go-Between was another (Cannes-winning) film that sought to find the transgressive blood flowing beneath the icy blue veins of prestige English period pieces.

Cannes Film Festival Award: Palme D’Or (ex-aequo)

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