Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This BBC production, a PBS Masterpiece Theater miniseries in the 1980s, is fondly remembered for the presence of Wendy Hiller, the fine actress of Major Barbara, Pygmalion, I Know Where I'm Going! and many others. From a 1932 novel by Vita Sackville-West, it's nothing special as drama. The pleasure is all with Ms. Hiller and her interaction with fine character actors like Harry Andrews.
The great Lady Slane (Wendy Hiller) has to change her life when her husband, a former viceroy of India and Prime Minister, finally dies. But her sons and their wives all have plans for the rest of her life, as "she never had to make any decisions for herself." Lady Slane instead sells her house and refits one in Hampstead with the help of a sales agent who becomes a good friend, Mr. Bucktrout (Maurice Denham). While her relatives fume over their dwindling inheritances, Lady Slane advises her great-granddaughter Deborah (Jane Snowden) and works in her garden. Then Mr. Fitzgeorge, an acquaintance from India, comes around. Lady Slane barely seems to remember him, but the old collector of art slowly reveals that she was the love of his life, 50 years ago ...
All Passion Spent starts with the idea that "old age is a time for one to do what they want" and picks out a main character with the freedom to do as she pleases. Lady Slane is the widow of a public servant with no great fortune, but she does have a house and will be able to live comfortably. Although it may have been challenging subject matter for 1932, the basic conflict is overly familiar. Lady Slane's relatives gather to "comfort" her but are immediately pigeonholed into two camps: Greedy, materialistic slaves to propriety and status, and a sensitive and thoughtful minority.
Graham Crowden ("If ....") leads the pack of boors that basically see their mother as a source of money and bristle at her every independent move. They want her to move in with them mainly so that they can divide up the revenue from the sale of her house. Crowden treats his mother like a baby but is himself uncomprehending when she ignores his advice and goes her own way. At one point she gives away all of her jewels to Crowden, her eldest son, perhaps waiting to see if he shares them with his brothers. Crowden and his wife simply accept them. Crowden's wife even tries on a necklace in front of her jealous relations.
On the positive side we're given one maiden aunt with a sweet disposition, an inoffensive brother interested in art and his collection of astrolabes (John Franklyn -Robbins) and a young grand-daughter set up to provide a contrast with our main character. Lady Slane went to India in the 1870s, marrying a man at a time when a young woman had no choice but to be a dutiful wife. Jane Snowden's Deborah is being railroaded into marrying a young man who will someday become a Duke; naturally, Lady Lane's example helps Deborah make a wise choice in the matter.
Lady Slane forms fast friendships with two gentlemen who help her redecorate her new Hampstead home, a sincere and gracious real estate man Bucktrout (Maurice Denham of The Purple Plain) and his very proper building contractor. She invites them to tea as equals and their response is unconcerned with appearances or gain. Naturally, this shocks Lady Slane's visiting relatives. Bucktrout does keep talking about his theory that the world will end in 1932, and that his tenant should forget long-term plans, which is a little disconcerting. "You don't need central heating" seems to really be saying, "You're going to die soon anyway." The talk of the world ending isn't satisfactorily resolved.
The big mystery in All Passion Spent comes with the visit of Harry Andrews' Mr. Fitzgeorge, who openly recalls his admiration for Lady Slane when he was in India fifty years before. Although Lady Slane barely lets on, it's one of those unspoken November romances where both parties respectfully bask in the warmth of what might have been. No sooner do the disgruntled relatives sitting in London find out about this Fitzgeorge character than they float theories that he and their mother were secret lovers. Lady Slane's children seem incapable of change or comprehension of anything beyond their personal desires. When she receives a massive, unexpected inheritance worth millions and announces that she's giving it away, her mortified children exit with stunned looks on their faces.
All Passion Spent is pleasant but lacking in anything resembling a narrative surprise. The relatives are hissably venal but only in petty ways: They talk idly about having their mother committed but know there is no basis for such a move. The marginalized good relations are all "special" to Lady Slane and there's never a chance of confusing the two sides. Lady Slane's brief time as a widow gives her modest freedoms she was never allowed before: A garden, honest friends (the workingmen in Hampstead) and a gentleman caller who loves and respects her. She tells off the villains and helps set the next generation on a good course.
If it weren't for Wendy Hiller I fear All Passion Spent would be a dull show indeed. Some of the dialogue is flat but we never catch Hiller hitting a false note. She seems a credible holdover from the Victorian Era, refined but free of stuffiness -- at one point she simply announces that she's going to avoid visitors under the age of 40. Both she and Harry Andrews look much too spry to be at the twilight of life, but Andrews did pass away just a couple of seasons later. Everyone else is little more than adequate, with Phyllis Calvert standing out among the waxwork relations. Eileen Way has a colorful French accent and some convincing tears as Genoux, Lady Slane's French maid.
All Passion Spent is a videotape production shot largely in two houses, with a few added scenes of Ms. Hiller strolling in parks and passing through suburban rail stations. It's visually undistinguished; a couple of directorial attempts to use foreground foliage stand out by making us suddenly realize that he's moving the camera. Costumes and fixtures are okay, but we get tired of seeing the same red sedan driving in scene after scene -- we almost expect it to stop and reveal an important new character. The lengthy miniseries is broken up into three fifty-minute sections and show its budgetary constraints by leaving most of the relatives seated and unmoving in their London sitting rooms.
Acorn Media's DVD of All Passion Spent is a very good transfer of this videotaped BBC show, with the expected mute colors and lack of sharp detail. It's still much better looking than many DVDs of television material thanks to adequate encoding; perhaps the static nature of many scenes helps in that regard. Nigel Hess' plaintive piano music suits the drama well.
The only extras are some text filmographies and a bio of the original author Vita Sackville-West. Her life seems to have been a combination of Lady Slane and an early 20th century libertarian. She traveled in the Middle East in the 1920s and had same-sex affairs while married, including a famous pairing with Virginia Woolf, who used her as the basis for her novel Orlando. Her other popular novel of the time was The Edwardians.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
All Passion Spent rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Vita Sackville-West biography, Cast filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson