Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Review: A Taste of Honey (1961)



Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.

Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will between the irrevocable fate and the indefatigable resilience of mankind.

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey explores the extent to which men are capable of withstanding endless misfortunes whilst keeping alive the infallibly optimistic outlook of life. The story is set in 1950s’ Salford, a former industrial town that weathered a gradual decline in commerce and population as people left for the cities to seek for better fortunes. 17-year-old Jo and her errant mother Helen were amongst those who struggled to keep afloat in this implacable squalor, moonlight-flitting from one derelict accommodation to another. The relationship between the mother and daughter was a contentious one; their exchange abounded in sardonic humour and throwaway barbs. Desperate to be released from the straits, Helen ran off one day with an insolent cad, and the abandoned Jo was impregnated by a black sailor and afterward befriended a kind homosexual art student, Geoffrey.

Tony Richardson’s 1961 film version justly evinces a dogged hopefulness that, according to Delaney, is the keynote of the play. But whilst, in the play, this positivism is somewhat weighed down by a sense of unremitting oppressiveness and self-inhibition the cramped locale evokes, Richardson negates this vital contrast by expanding the visual scope, wherein the interiors are much wider, and the characters are taken out into the open, roaming frequently in the country and the dockside.

By muting the ambiguous overtone that makes the original story not only a celebration of human endurance, but an unvarnished observation of the difficult life in post-war Manchester, the film is evidently keen on conveying an edifying message that the brave of heart will eventually triumphs all obstacles. The play nonetheless is much more sceptic in its tone, as the ending sees Helen, back from her disastrous marriage to tend to her pregnant daughter, rush out in the shocked knowledge that her grandchild may be half-black. Although she promises Jo that she is only going to get herself a few drinks, there is no knowing if the fickle Helen will keep her word this time. Jo, left alone again, smilingly hums a tune Geoffrey teaches her, seemingly still in the dark of her friend’s earlier departure.

The film instead closes with manifest signs of hope: Helen is really back from the bar and Jo stares bedazzled by a sparkler. This overall image of hope is accompanied by a more sympathetic portrayal of characters: Dora Bryan as the mother whose maternal instinct atones for her failure as a responsible parent, and Rita Tushingham as a more likeable Jo whose flares of rebelliousness is a result of being perpetually exposed to harsh fate. Like all young sufferers, Jo often discloses her feelings in deceptively simple address: “I’m not frightened of the darkness outside. It’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like” is her way of expressing her wish for a more stable, loving household. One would suggest that such precocity could not have been any more exquisitely captured if the play weren’t written by Delaney when she was only 19.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Review: Hobson's Choice (1954)



In comedy a happy ending does not always resolve all. The case in point is Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, whose hilarity so overtly predicates on the wretchedness of the victim that, when one laughs there follows inevitably a conscience tug that one is gloating over someone’s misfortune.

My disquietude may seem misplaced here, for the importance of the play is really on its revolutionary illustration of an upending of the age-old hierarchy in traditional domesticity. Henry Hobson is the imperious, blustering, perennially sottish shoeseller bestriding his three unmarried daughters, who skivvy away at the shop and the household without pay. The story is set in late 19th century Salford, just a few miles from where the first suffrage movement germinated. The play presents a hallmark in heralding the birth of female empowerment: Maggie, the eldest daughter who is deemed too old to be marriageable at 30, is impelled to prove her father wrong by marrying William Mossop, the most skilled bootmaker in the shop, and gradually gaining upper hand with her calculated mind and steely ambition. The moral lesson seems to be, crudely, that parents should not underestimate their children’s potentials, and that upward mobility is an insidious power in transforming a society.

If it seems that I am equivocal with the play’s ostensible feminist statement, it is because I sense Brighouse’s doubt regarding the prospect of the rising number of self-made, independent women. This is especially evident in the characterisation of Maggie, who, despite embodying a fine mixture of sense and intelligence, is too set on fashioning her humble husband to become the top shoemaker that, instead of unfettering from the paternal yoke and asserting her strength, she is merely lurking in the outsized shadow of her father’s. The final triumphant moment with Maggie and Mossop patronisingly proposing working partnership with the ailing, subdued Hobson seems more of a vindictive display of their reversed fortune than a solicitous love for the defeated party- here lies the pathos that single-handedly eclipses whatever positive message the play wishes to convey.

David Lean’s 1954 adaptation of the play brilliantly enlivens a story that may seem too austere for silver screen. There are inventive moments of great comedy: like the opening scene with Charles Laughton’s paunchy, endearingly fractious Hobson tottering up the stairs to his room like a drunk high-wire artist, and the sequence when he, also drunk, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a puddle only to be confronted by his own bloated face staring stupidly back at him. As Lean’s last film in black-and-white, the visuals yield a symbolic pessimism for the future: Maggie and Mossop discuss their marriage plans in a pleasure garden that is bounded by industrial plants and river floated with scums.

But, despite Lean’s efforts at trying to make the film an ingenious play of wits and will, this is the sort of drama that works best when it remains skin-deep. Once the laughter ceases the comedy reveals its jarring underside- that a sense of power that feeds off the deliberate deprivation of others’ can only lead to one destination, which by no means resemble the ideal image a democratic society consciously pursues.