Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Movie review: A taste of honey

A Taste of Honey is set in the industrialized, grimy Northwest of England, in a borough slightly outside the city of Manchester. There, we are introduced to a working class, seventeen-year-old schoolgirl named Jo. Though na├»ve in the ways of romance, as we will soon see, she’s nevertheless developed a hard shell due to a difficult childhood. Jo has often had to serve as a surrogate parent to her alcoholic, impulsive, irresponsible mother, who rarely admits her numerous failings.

By chance, Jo meets a black sailor named Jimmy one fateful day. The two begin a romance, which ends abruptly when Jimmy’s ship sails, with him aboard. After her mother remarries a much younger, but wealthy man, Jo strikes out on her own. While on the job, where she sells shoes to manage to live on her own, she makes a sale and earns an eventual roommate. His name is Geoffery, a textile design student and a talented artist. The two grow close, eventually becoming best friends in a relatively short period of time.

As they continue to build a friendship, Geoffery reluctantly admits that he is gay and that he has been recently kicked out of his previous flat. Though he can’t quite bring himself to vocalize precisely what happened, he implies that his landlady discovered him in bed with another man. With no reservations or hesitations, Jo offers Geoffery the opportunity to live with her. It makes good sense. The two feign a romantic relationship that often serves as cover for both. All is well and good until Jo returns from the doctor one day, having realized that she is pregnant with the sailor’s child.

Heavily conflicted, her feelings regarding the pregnancy vary considerably from day to day. She doesn’t want to have the child, but is unwilling to agree to an abortion. Geoffery cares for Jo as would a husband. He even goes as far as to express a willingness to raise the child as his own. Geoffery believes that the two ought to get married, at least for a time, until she can find new love and get back on her feet. Jo declines, but appreciates the sincerity and generosity of the offer.

This was risky, very adult stuff for its time. Britain in 1961 was a very different place than it is today, one where homosexuality was still illegal. A Taste of Honey, the film, was based upon the play of the same name. It had first seen release for a public audience three years earlier. The playwright Shelagh Delaney penned her first dramatic work at the tender age of 18, when she was not much older than her main character. A success as a play, it was agreed that a A Taste of Honey should next be adapted for the cinema. For the film version, Delaney jointly collaborated on the screenplay with the film’s director, Tony Richardson.  

Having come to prominence in 1958’s Look Back in Anger, this, Richardson’s next major work, would prove to be a critical success in the UK. However, the film passed almost unnoticed in the United States and the rest of the world. Richardson would not have to wait much longer before his directorial projects developed significant popularity. In the beginning, Richardson was just another creative voice, one part of an larger artistic and intellectual movement then very trendy. It was called kitchen-sink realism. The movement’s goal was, in large part, to provide a truthful portrayal of working class life.

British films prior to kitchen-sink had usually focused on the aristocracy, while showing the so-called lower classes to be loutish and stereotypically crude. From the late 1950’s into the mid-1960’s, kitchen-sink realism became much in vogue among critics, bringing to prominence an emergent group of first-time directors and writers. Along with Richardson, the list contained Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, John Boorman, and Richard Lester. Each of them would achieve some degree of commercial success before the 1960’s were up. Richardson, Schelsinger, and Lester would be the most commercially successful of them all.

The films of what soon became known as the British New Wave focus on the lives of the city-dwelling salt of the earth. Notable contributors to the New Wave, in defiance of the rigid British class system, placed their settings well away from London and the South of England. Like A Taste of Honey, these films were usually set in far less glamorous locales. Most of the genre were inexpensively made, shot in black and white, and filmed on location. Social realism was the intent, seeking to get away from the days of Technicolor extravaganzas with massive ensemble casts, shot mostly on sound stages.

Ironically, Richardson would himself prove to be the undoing of kitchen-sink, this only two years after A Taste of Honey was released. Casting Albert Finney in the lead role of the rousing comedy hit Tom Jones, this effort was at long last a well-deserved massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually rewarded the Academy Award for Best Picture. Tom Jones’ playfulness and cheeky humor put an end to the uber-serious grittiness of what had come before it.

Next to follow was the cultural upheaval present as the 1960’s progressed, which encouraged radical cinematic experimentation. The fussiness of kitchen-sink was nowhere to be found, yet in some ways, its insistence upon accuracy over spectacle persisted. Kitchen-sink survives to the present day, still influencing filmmakers because of its daring.  

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