Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Now for one of the greatest female performances on celluloid - up there with the very best. Maggie Smith is totally mesmerising and heart-breaking in Jack Clayton's 1987 THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE where her every mood and gesture captures perfectliy the bleak existance of Miss Hearne in that Dublin of the early '50s. Let's just look at the vhs cassette blurb (there isn't a good dvd issue and what there is fetches silly money, so I had to re-connect my vhs player to play it). 

Two-time Academy Award winner Maggie Smith is Judith, a naive, abandoned spinster struggling to maintain her fragile dignity in a succession of shoddy Dublin boarding houses. Bob Hoskins is the younger man who enters her life with the apparent promise of love and companionship. But Judith's carefully constructed fantasy is shattered when her supposed suitor reveals his true motives. Falling back on the trusted escape routes of religion and alconhol only increases her desperation. Now Judith must face her "lonely passions" and in conquering them, summon up the spiritual courage to carry on. Or: A middle-aged spinster scrapes by giving piano lessons in the Dublin of the 1950s. She makes a sad last bid for love with a fellow resident of her rundown boarding house, who imagines she has the money to bankroll the business he hopes to open.

Taken from a highly-regarded novel by Brian Moore which was actually set in Belfast, but Dublin seems more appropriate here, Jack Clayton and scriptwriter Peter Nelson fashion this sad tale which stays with one, I am still moved by it today. Clayton of course has been great with actresses: Signoret in ROOM AT THE TOP, Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Bancroft in THE PUMPKIN EATER (where Maggie Smith had that small eye-catching role...). Smith is in her element here, as the lady of slender means, whether settling into her new room, or later turning to drink, and then fearing she is losing her religion which keeps her going as she turns on the church and the priest trying to calm her. We see her life in the flashbacks, at the beck and call of her demanding aunt - the great Wendy Hiller (I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING) and being tolerated by relations like Prunella Scales (Mapp in MAPP AND LUCIA, Sybil in FAWLTY TOWERS). The boarding house is run by the great Marie Kean whom we like a lot (THE GIRL WITH GREEN EYES, I WAS HAPPY HERE, RYAN'S DAUGHTER, BARRY LYNDON, THE DEAD, THE IRISH R.M.).  We also observe the intrigues of the other boarders ...

Judith gives piano lessons, and discusses New York with Bob Hoskins who has returned from America, a man looking for money to fund his business ventures, as he takes Judith to the cinema (SAMSON AND DELILAH!) and she wants him to escort her to church - having a man by her side at mass is important to her. Once it all comes crashing down Judith hits the bottle and loses her students, spends all her savings and has a breakdown and slowly recovers, but what is she going to do now?  It is certainly heart-breaking and downbeat but also so human and mesmirising. I had thought THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE was Smith's greatest role, but I am now sure its this unsparing portrait of a lonely spinster, one of the greatest performances I have seen. Everyone is superlative here and the period detail seems exactly right too. George Delerue did the haunting score - it its produced by George Harrison's Handmade Films company. One to keep and return to then.  I have had to order the book too - it was long mooted as a project for Deborah Kerr (who would have been fine here too in a good late role for her) and John Huston, instead we have Clayton's with a great actress at her peak. Smith then, after A PRIVATE FUNCTION and A ROOM WITH A VIEW and before Alan Bennett's TALKING HEADS (on TV again next week here for Bennett's 80th birthday tributes, but I have the dvd set) could do no wrong, either in these deeply intense roles or her camp, wrist-flapping comedy turns in CALIFORNIA SUITE, MURDER BY DEATH or EVIL UNDER THE SUN. She also tackled another serious role in 1972, but it did not quite come off ...

LOVE AND PAIN AND THE WHOLE DAMN THING. After Liza Minnelli in THE STERILE CUCKOO (or POOKIE) in 1969 and Jane Fonda as Bree in KLUTE, 1971, Alan J Pakula was THE director for actresses in fascinating films, and it is Maggie Smith’s turn here in 1972. At the time Smith could do no wrong after her MISS BRODIE hit, and stage successes at the National Theatre (HEDDA GABLER directed by Ingmar Bergman, THE BEAU’S STRATAGEM - both of which I saw twice, we saw her on the stage a lot in those 70s years) so why not an oddball romantic comedy, scripted by Alvin Sargent and directed by Alan J Pakula? 
The film though proved too oddball and I have never had a chance to re-see it until now (thanks, tim) … Timothy Bottoms (big after THE LAST PICTURE SHOW but not particularly charismatic) is the repressed young guy on holiday in Spain who wants to get away from his family of over-achievers, and she is the 37 year old repressed spinster – who may have a fatal disease. Both are kindred spirits and lonely souls, but it is rather excruciating watching them finally get together, with slapkstick scenes which do not work at all, like her being trapped in an outdoor toilet and getting toilet paper wrapped all around her legs …. At least the real Spain looks ideal here, well 40 years ago … finally, it does not end, but mercifully just stops. 
Dame Maggie has of course provided for her pension with the HARRY POTTER films and her enjoyable turns in DOWNTON ABBEY (via GOSFORD PARK), though we loathe her 'old folk' films like MARIGOLD HOTEL (there is a second one soon) and QUARTET - as per my reviews at Smith label.
Next: a great actor: Albert Finney in Huston's UNDER THE VOLCANO.

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