Laughter in the Dark (Tony Richardson, UK, 1969)

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One of a number of cynical romances of the time, this one has a wealthy art expert falling in love with penniless young cinema usherette Margot (Anna Karina). This expert, Sir Edward More (Nicol Williamson), has a beautiful wife and bright young child, a house in the country in spacious grounds, even spots on the telly. Clearly he’s no fool, yet he falls for this scheming bint head-over-heels.

This is the first problem with the film. Williamson is an engaging actor, sometimes fragile and irrational, so very believable and easy to empathise with if not to like. Here you just want to give him a slap. The girl taunts him with greedy demands to be set up in a flat with everything to match while turning up at his house unasked and wrecking his marriage. And all before he’s even slept with her. Sometimes the less you get the more you want, but this is taking it too far.

No sooner is Margot shacked up with her sugar daddy than she takes up with an old flame, a French art forger and all-round chancer (Jean-Claude Drouot). Together they plot to fleece the older man, under the cover story of the virile lover being in fact a homosexual. Older men with nymphette lovers are renowned for raging jealousy, but that of Sir Edward is ridiculously easily dispelled. Later, when he has become entirely dependent on the girl, we the viewers are aware of things that he himself is not. But he clearly ought to be, so the necessary suspension of disbelief is not there.

Another weak point surprisingly enough is Anna Karina. She is a little too old for the part, and is an unenticing presence with an unpleasant (and unplaceable) European accent. Worse, the camera doesn’t really love her. Sometimes she doesn’t even look beautiful.

The story is adapted from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and here lies another common problem. Perhaps because they are too attached to the dialogue on the printed page the characters don’t come alive, and neither does the story. Something similar happened with another Nabokov adaptation, Jerzy Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave (1972). Visually the film is uninspired, though the photography is acceptable if a little limpid. Tony Richardson is one of those journeyman directors who made his name undeservedly by attaching it to the work of other rising stars of the time.

The film gets better as it nears the end, with the atmosphere becoming more dreamy and thus believability no longer a concern, but in the end the viewer is left with the realisation that’s he’s been promised a challenging arthouse drama and been served up nothing but a B-movie, and a slack one at that. People wonder why these films get neglected and forgotten.

Three clips with Anna Karina

scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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Abigail’s Party (Mike Leigh, UK, 1977)

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This is a legendary TV play that seems as familiar as any other, but one I’ve never actually got around to seeing in full until now. For those in the same boat, it’s not actually about Abigail’s party at all – worth bearing in mind before opening your mouth and betraying your ignorance. The ghastly nasal-voiced hostess played by Alison Steadman is called Beverly. Abigail is fifteen, and her party is going on next door. This, on reflection, is very significant.

Beverly and her husband Laurence, a prosperous couple who aspire to belong to the middle class (and believe that they actually do), have invited their new neighbours around for drinks to get to know them. And at the same time no doubt establish their superior social standing. Sue, Abigail’s mother and hence refugee from the teenage party, is dropping by too. Mike Leigh’s play of suburban pretensions is remarkable primarily for what it doesn’t show. These characters are mostly hidden beneath the surface, and just like with real people it’s fascinating to speculate on the experiences that shaped them the way they are. Laurence the workaholic estate agent for instance. When he tries to run a business errand instead of getting ready Beverly chastens him like a naughty pup. His response is wheedling. Is he really so ambitious he puts his customers first, or just desperate to get away from this overbearing Juno-with-fag-in-gob matron?

Angela and Tony the new neighbours are about ten years younger, and evidently in a lower income bracket despite them both working. Angela is a nurse, Tony a ‘computer operator’, whatever that means (probably less than it sounds – changing the tape reels in those days maybe). You immediately get a sense of where things are heading from his demeanour. It’s sort of a military bearing, but not in a good way; rather it’s suggestive of an especially officious and disliked corporal. She has the complacent boastful manner of a child, thoughtlessly running off at the mouth with anything that seems to show her in a good light regardless of its effect on anybody else (“I helped take her to the toilet”). Not a terrible couple to be sure. You can’t help feeling protective towards Angie, and Tony’s extreme monosyllabic gruffness is the sort of thing many women go for; Beverly certainly does. But they are totally unsuited. How did they come to be together? You start to think of explanations, and they tend not to be happy ones.

Sue meanwhile, a genuine representative of the middle class of the previous generation, her natural diffidence exacerbated by a painful divorce, plainly would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere, even (perhaps especially) her daughter’s party. The guests have rather little to say to each other. Beverly unwittingly stirs the powder keg, her domineering nature forcing gin down Sue’s throat and making Angie start smoking after giving up. Any attempt at showing off superior cultural sophistication backfires as hollow pretension. Worries mount over the party next door. The men take a look on poor Sue’s behalf, and when they come back (separately) one is soaked in water. Whatever happened? Ominously it’s not explained. You come up with theories that are the stuff of nightmare.

The unseen Abigail’s Party of the title is intended to symbolise the parts of people’s lives hidden beneath the surface. Which, of course, is very clever. To rub it in, Sue’s closing phone call to Abigail is one of wordless horror. Less intellectually, the play is a slow-burning but sometimes hilarious mix of subtle observation and coarse physical comedy. Mike Leigh’s condescending attacks on the snobberies of the “little people” do make me a little uncomfortable however, especially in the light of the gloomy pretentiousness of his later works of the ‘nineties and beyond.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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