if you do try and catch up with this unearthed British gem from 1957 (and you should) don't forget to bring hankies.
Though the name of journeyman director J Lee Thompson (known for Ice Cold In Alex and the original Cape Fear) is hardly a shining beacon within the annuls of modern British cinema, his claustrophobic and long-unloved 1957 'break-up' drama, Woman In a Dressing Gown, is so good that one might be inclined to mount a full scale reappraisal.
On the surface it's beautifully modulated and expertly paced, if deceptively plain-looking kitchen sink tragicomedy. Yet the film's radical appropriation of proto-feminist politics also marks it out as a grubby one-of-a-kind that offers a refreshing counterpoint to both the gang of Angry Young Men who were to hog the cultural zeitgeist in the sixties, and the pursed-lip romanticism of Lean's Brief Encounter.
In trying to place it within a wider cinematic context, one could draw on such diverse touchstones as (looking back) Douglas Sirk and Josef Von Sternberg, and (looking forward) Mike Leigh, RW Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman and Terrence Davies. It's blank-eyed investigation into to the ruthless social suppression of women could even ally it to such Japanese masters as Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi. Though it doesn't quite attain that level of emotional refinement.
Thompson's film is ruthlessly direct and clear-headed. His lead, Yvonne Mitchell, is heartbreaking as Amy, the eponymous Woman in a Dressing Gown. She is scatty and dimwitted but sincere and loyal, relegated to a life of mindless ablutions soundtracked by a medley of Light Music classics and daydreaming in a cramped flat with her husband Jimbo (Anthony Quayle) and their chipper teenage son, Bri (Andrew Ray). Yet Jimbo has designs on the pristine young popsy (Sylvia Syms) working in his office, and today is the day that he's going to spring a surprise on Amy and walk on her forever.
Though Amy apparently has zero aspirations to be anything more than a subservient housewife, Thompson's film critiques the society that created and sustained this norm. Jimbo's attempt to walk out comes mid-way through the film, and the window Amy is given to try and win him back and prove to him that she can be more than dowdy waitress is far too brief for her eternally optimistic, accident-prone temperament. Her abject failure (she tears her dress, she misses the bus, the rain ruins her new hair, etc) is less a litany literal of cosmic failures than it is a metaphorical suggestion that hers is a permanent prison of servitude forced domesticity.
Though Syms and Quayle are convincing and robust in their roles of the ethically-conflicted lovers, it's Mitchell who steps in as the film's thumping heart. A tragic heroine in the classical sense, the film is made all the more moving by the fact that we entirely understand why Jimbo wants to leave her. A scene in which – at a low ebb – she breaks down in their pokey bathroom is almost unwatchably sad.
A purported “lost British classic. Aren't they all?!
Wow. A beautifully wrought melodrama that's always heartbreaking and never manipulative.
A very worthy rediscovery.