Leonard here. My colleague Mark Searby is going to be sharing monthly columns with us highlighting British cinema past and present. Please enjoy A Bit of Crumpet.
No Sex Please, We’re British goes the title of the British comedy farce, and nothing could be more
correct when it comes to Brits discussing sex in films and TV shows. For decades it was almost taboo to show or even talk all things sex in mainstream feature films. It just wasn’t the done thing. However, if you scratched underneath that stoic exterior then you’d find that actually the British have been making some pretty hard-hitting films about sex and sexual proclivities for almost as long as they’ve been making films.
Take for example Saraband for Dead Lovers, a story about sexual desire that had such long tail
consequences it runs all the way up to the reigning British monarch, King Charles III. For this is a true story about how a young woman was forced into a marriage with the aristocrat Prince George Louis. Sophia Dorothea, while also being held a virtual prisoner in the mansion of her husband the Prince, falls in love with the strikingly handsome mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark from Sweden. The two of them plot to run away to England together but Konigsmark has another woman vying for his attention – the wicked Countess Platen, who had previously been a lover of the Count’s. Filmed at Ealing Studios on hugely, lavish interior sets, Saraband for Dead Lovers brings out a decadence in its set designs and costumes that eventually saw it nominated for an Oscar. It was Ealing Studios first ever colour film and their most expensive at that time (It was also its biggest box off flop too). It is a feast for the eyes in terms of its look & style especially for a film shot in 1948. When it comes to its storytelling, this film is more about the burning desire than bodice ripping lovemaking. Director Basil Dearden lets the film run at a slow pace as the sexual tension between Konigsmark and Dorothea bubbles away while the scheming of both the Prince and also the Countess plays out more as the central plot. These genuinely bad guys and gals make you want to boo and hiss at them while cheering and swooning when Konigsmark and Dorothea manage an all-to-brief clinch. Stewart Granger, with his perfectly symmetrical perma-tanned face and long flowing, jet-black locks, plays Konigsmark as strong & brave on the outside but on the inside like a schoolboy quivering over his first girlfriend. His Swedish accent leaves a lot to be desired though. Joan Greenwood is the perfect folly as Dorothea opposite Granger’s Konigsmark. She plays fast and loose (possibly too sexually loose for when the film was made) with her romantic feelings and as such her love ebbs & flows throughout. Greenwood’s diminutive stature is deceiving as she fights, physically and emotionally, against those who are trying to stand in her way. Dorothea is a woman doing it all herself and Greenwood gives a resilient performance in the role.
The film manly plays out in a series of rooms within the mansion as it goes heavy on the dialogue.
Which it needs to when explaining how Dorothea and Konigsmark will do anything to escape
together and what it means for those remaining and also how it will impact them. Alongside storylines for the Prince, the Countess and even bullyboy Duke George William (later to be crowned Britain’s King George I) as to what their conniving and evil scheming against the want-away losers with do for their own lives, professionally and personally. Plots and subplots are in abundance here. But Saraband for Dead Lovers lacks liveliness. A five-minute segment in the middle of the film sees a masked Dorothea run off into the town’s lively carnival. Suddenly the film jolts into an almost horror movie as she tries to push through the large crowds, who are all wearing grotesque masks, and escape from the merriment. It plays very much like a precursor to many scenes from The Wicker Man. This smattering of folk horror, before it was a real subgenre, crackles the film into life. And when Konigsmark is swashbuckling for his life towards the end the film finally finds an extra energy element beyond its romance story. But these moments are all too quickly extinguished and it returns to a talky drama with sprinklings of romance. This understated British period piece isn’t a red hot & racy film. Its more a mildly engaging historical romance about desire.
However, possibly the most shocking element of Saraband for Dead Lovers is that the entire film is a criticism on the cruelty and corruption of the aristocracy (an aristocracy that would ultimately become the British monarchy) at a time when loyalty to King George VI was very high within the British Isles. Head of Ealing Studios Michael Balcon was a huge royalist and wouldn’t hear a word said against the monarchy. So, it’s quite astounding that this film got made under his leadership.
If it wasn’t shocking enough that the British made a film about sex & aristocracy dishonesty way back in 1948, then prepare for a film from 1952 that took a look at unmarried mothers and selling children for adoption. Women of Twilight was so shocking to British censors upon release that the film has the dubious honour of being the first ever film to receive the dreaded ‘X’ certificate. Ultimately suggesting that this drama was worse than a lot of the horror films. But what had Women of Twilight shown that was so bad for it to be stamped with an ‘X’ classification? Basically, it was the viewing experience of seeing unmarried women with children. That’s it! Unmarried mothers became ostracized from everyday life. Shunted away like leapers. They weren’t spoken about. So, to make a film about them was incredibly shocking. Women of Twilight was an expose of a hushed area of society and as such it became a taboo subject in the eyes of the British censors, and public, at that time.
Even in this modern era the film still packs a punch. However, ‘Acceptance’ is the word that springs
to mind. All the single mothers in the boarding house wouldn’t be shunned today and would probably be faring much better without the men who loved (?) and left them. We must be thankful that society, in general, has moved forward as much as it has and that being a single mother is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s something to be celebrated compared to what we see in this film. Here we watch as the women in the house try to keep low profiles out in the real world while also trying to look after their babies within the house and under the strict eye of Mrs. Helen ‘Nelly’ Allistair, played menacingly by English stage, TV and film actress Freda Jackson. A devilish woman who continuously utters the word ‘Slut’ at her boarders. She doesn’t care for these women. She is only out to claim their social security money each month. It’s horrible to watch what these women go through at the hands of a fellow female who they thought would be on their side when she kindly opened them door for them. But instead, they have to take every single demoralising tone and word that is thrown at them. Even in the modern day, watching these scenes leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Thankfully, the relationship between the single mothers is what keeps this film upbeat. They may bark & bicker at each other. However, they soon form bonds that become unbreakable. Each of them comes from a different walk of life. Vivianne, a woman who fell pregnant to a club singer who killed a woman, isn’t looking to the future. She is only living in the here and now, and as such doesn’t see herself leaving the boarding house anytime soon. It’s a depressing viewpoint to witness. Yet, she is a realist. Compare Vivianne to super-posh Veronica who just doesn’t understand why Daddy won’t come & rescue her and her constantly telling the other women that she was merely “taken advantage of” to which she fell pregnant. Later on, she does describe her ordeal in greater depth and it very much sounds like she was raped, but she won’t let that be the truth in her mind. Some of these women have put a barrier around their sexual experiences/ordeals so as to keep their sanity. The other women know this and never seek to push them more, instead simply letting them speak and then backing them up when necessary. It’s a sisterhood where judgement doesn’t exist. These women have been through enough trauma already and then it only gets worse for them when they have to live under the roof of the tyrannical Nelly. However, they try & do the best they can and be the best they can be, especially Vivianne who is still backing her boyfriend even after he suffocated another woman in the clinches of passion. It is also suggested that this isn’t the first time Vivianne has had to face up to the fact that her boyfriend is a serial womanizer and that there might have some abuse, physical and mental, in the relationship. Later on, in the film Vivianne is mercilessly pushed down the stairs by Nelly after an altercation over the death of a baby. It’s a harrowing sequence and one that brings to light how powerless these women are at times. For all the bleakness that Women of Twilight has, it surprises us all by ending on a series of moments that are wonderfully upbeat and very much needed. What Women of Twilight does best is ensure that we feel both sympathy and hope for every single unmarried mother in that boarding house. They aren’t there by choice; they have been forced into becoming a tenant. They need help but the world at large won’t offer it. Yet, these women have each other and sometimes that’s enough to pull them through the toughest of situations.
This is a hard-hitting social drama where women pushed to the edge of British society are ruthlessly
exploited and looked down upon by both men and other women.
Saraband for Dead Lovers and Women of Twilight are now available for the first time ever on Blu Ray
from StudioCanal UK.
Mark Searby is a film critic based in the UK. His reviews can be weekly on BBC Radio. He is the author of books on Al Pacino, Rik Mayall and Eddie Murphy. He will always buy the first round at the bar. http://www.marksearby.com/