Friday 27 July 2012

On the verge: "Woman in a Dressing Gown"

Written by Ted Willis (best known for The Blue Lamp) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (better remembered for Ice Cold in Alex and the original Cape Fear), the unusual 1957 offering Woman in a Dressing Gown now looks like both a women's picture in the conventional sense and a deconstruction of same. At its centre is a character who couldn't be further away from the domestic goddesses fetishised by countless 50s movies and newsreels. We first see Amy (Yvonne Mitchell), bedraggled wife and mother, as she attempts to rouse the inhabitants of the small council flat she calls home: like a whirlwind, she turns up the radio too loud, burns the toast, and proceeds utterly unfazed by the stacks of unattended washing, ironing and sewing tossed around her. Her teenage son (Andrew Ray) is bemused by mum's continual inability to stay on top of things, or indeed to get herself dressed properly: "You work like a horse, but you never seem to get anywhere."

Worse, though, is to follow. When Amy's husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) leaves the flat that morning, it's to see his mistress Georgie (Sylvia Syms). Gorgeous in a very English way, and the model of elegant, demure femininity, Georgie is only too happy to put the kettle and a Sunday roast on for her man; the contrast with Amy, observed singing tunelessly along to a crass ditty with her friends in the pub, is a marked one. Willis and Thompson were playing a dangerous game here: the framing of their film is such that Woman in a Dressing Gown risks misinterpretation as a cautionary tale, insisting that divorce is just what happens, ladies, if you don't put the necessary effort in around the house. Yet the feel of the film, on a scene-by-scene basis, is of something looser and New Wave-y, French as well as British. Mitchell, wearing her tousled hair as a defiant signifier, gives one of the great scatterbrained performances of British cinema - a turn that begins as pure jazz, yet lapses into the tired mania of a woman desperate to keep up everybody else's appearances at the expense of her own. And Quayle, too, makes perhaps surprisingly sympathetic a decent man - a gentleman, in most respects - who's somehow found himself trapped by the life of domesticity. 

Thompson shoots the little boxes these characters inhabit as though they were prison cells, with sheets hanging from the rafters and iron bars on the windows; Amy and Jim don't have room to breathe, let alone think, and we're reminded that Room at the Top and Cathy Come Home were only a couple of years away. Woman in a Dressing Gown remains just a little too discreet to be truly angry or radical about the domestic environment, in the way these films, or its later French equivalents Jeanne Dielman... or Two or Three Things I Know About Her would be - it climaxes in some very familiar arguments around the kitchen sink, resolved over cups of tea - but this remains an interesting, noteworthy rediscovery, telling us as it does something of what it might well have been to be a woman in the Britain of 55 years ago.

Woman in a Dressing Gown returns to selected cinemas from today, ahead of a DVD release on August 13.