A few months past, I reviewed the latest from British drama stalwart Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. A densely-packed love triangle story set in post-war Britain, the old show tunes, pub crawls and an astonishingly brilliant Rachel Weisz didn’t carry enough charm for me to enjoy all the haute-taute eliticism. Call my cynic, futurist, or just plain old prick, but I’d rather get my kicks watching progressive films rather than ones drowning in nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I heard that one of Davies’ major influences of the film was to be remastered for the big screen. Now imagine how much of a mind-fuck it was to realise that Woman In A Dressing Gown is a mesmerising romance drama, worthy of my two shillings and sixpence.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Woman In a Dressing Gown is more fragile and melodramatic than his later sinewy flicks The Guns of Navarone and the 1962 original Cape Fear. Based on a British TV play, this 1957 film centres around a riveting performance from the late Yvonne Mitchell. She plays Amy Preston, who after 25 years of marriage still can’t hone in the domestic prowess required to be a prim, proper, and submissive 1950s housewife. Her long-suffering husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) can no longer sit back and digest Amy’s unpalatable dinners, slovenly dress, and their messy lower class London flat, and takes up with his young receptionist Georgie Harlow (Sylvia Sims). With his heartstrings stretched, he knows it’s only a matter of time before one of them needs to get the shove.
Unlike Davies film, Thompson isn’t heavy handed with the superficial aesthetics to water down the depressive realism of the heartbreaking tale. If anything, Ted Willis’ script presides over the fairly unambitious direction with a forthright depiction of love-loss, coming from both the mind and the heart.
With the on-the-nose dialogue, Woman in A Dressing Gown‘s downbeat tone and close make the undermining theme of depression almost palpable. Yvonne’s stiff upper lip conceals the messy married life of her nightmares; Jim is sexually frustrated and unsatisfied; and naive mistress Georgie’s first love situation is hardly picture book. In some shape or form, all three of these wrestling protagonists are stuck, lonely and depressed. Common themes for any romantic drama, but never usually so beguiling as they are here, with the tension brimming until the film’s penultimate scene when distraught Amy invites Georgie over so the three can discuss the whole affair like ‘civilised adults’. Over a cup of tea, of course.
Even with a Berlinale-winning performance from Yvonne Mitchell as the disorderly housewife Mary, the best work comes from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Years before his success as D.P. for Star Wars IV, Dr. Strangelove and The Omen, Woman In A Dressing Gown let’s us see a soon-to-be visionary get the vocational, with swooping panel shots and expressive close-ups.
The film is historically significant too, fitting in somewhere between British post-war, tea time melodrama and kitchen sink socio-realism. Ostensibly a heritage piece, it’s nevertheless fantastic to see these small, yet personable stories back on the big screen.