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Laurence Olivier and writer-director Peter Glenville put the English Kitchen Sink genre to rest with the superior drama Term of Trial. Olivier gives one of his best later performances, before he stepped back to doing mostly supporting bits. This seldom-screened tale paints a grim picture of an alcoholic public schoolteacher's ill-advised association with an impressionable student. Term of Trial sets us up for an unpleasant tragedy, only to offer some welcome surprises in its last act.
Well-born and highly educated, Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) is stuck teaching unmanageable high school thugs. Passed over long ago for having been a conscientious objector during WW2, Weir now avoids confrontations with his condescending school principal and miscreant students like Mitchell (Terence Stamp). Weir's unhappy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) taunts him cruelly about his general passivity. Weir makes a stab at a promotion by volunteering for extra service at the school. He boosts his morale by offering free tutoring to Shirley Taylor (Sarah Miles, in her first film) a slum girl who wants to win a better job by improving her English. The problem is that Shirley looks like twenty but still thinks like a fifteen year-old child -- and develops a crush on Weir that she'd like to see consummated. Shirley makes her move on a field trip to Paris. Weir does his best to turn her down without upsetting her, but Shirley's infatuation transforms into a vindictive hatred.
For two-thirds of its length Term of Trial is almost painful to watch. Olivier's Graham Weir is a victim looking for a noose to hang himself with. A good man committed to nonviolence, he's weathered a life of disillusion and disappointment. Simone Signoret's Anna is even more dissatisfied. When her husband doesn't respond to her insults she thinks even less of him, and complains that she'd respect him more if he were less principled. Weir breaks out of his funk by taking the sweet Shirley under his wing. She seems genuinely innocent and Weir wants to help her make a success of things. Shirley's other intentions are clear enough to Anna, who seems almost upset that her husband's interest in the girl is so benign.
Weir's passive life begins to change. Infuriated by Mitchell, he punishes the boy by caning his hands in front of the class. Weir goads Mitchell into cooperating with the ritual by accusing him of cowardice. It's a strange echo of Weir's own experience as an accused coward during the war. Most of Weir's associates don't seem aware of his record, but Anna accuses him of "life cowardice" every day.
Olivier played a respected man who throws his life away over a woman back in 1952's Carrie, directed by William Wyler. Graham Weir is not as strong of a character, so we squirm with discomfort as we see the teacher falling into a trap that can only lead to disgrace and ruin. Olivier certainly makes Weir's self-contradictions believable. The teacher foolishly allows himself to accept affectionate gestures and gifts from Shirley. On the Paris trip Shirley feigns an obviously false claustrophobia to get Weir away from the other students and chaperones. He buys her an expensive toy and takes her to the top of the Eiffel Tower. They spend the whole day together. Granted, in 1963 such behavior might not have been regarded as suspicious as it would today, but it's highly risky. Weir and Shirley have advanced to the state where she gives him impulsive kisses on the cheek. He should know darn well that what's innocent to him is something much different to her. We think he's losing his grip, like the teachers in Election that make the fatal mistake of becoming personally involved with their students.
Graham Weir's mistake is accepting Shirley as the thinking adult she strives to impersonate. He very tenderly -- too tenderly -- rebuffs her advances in the hotel room, leaving himself wide open. Shirley retaliates by openly making out with Mitchell where Graham can see them. Then, when she gets home, she lies to her small-minded mother (Thora Hird) about what happened in that hotel room.
That's where the "trial" part of the film comes in. Everything hinges on Weir's ability to prove that he's innocent, an issue that hinges on conflicting testimony. The police assume Graham is guilty because he doesn't assert his innocence with shouts and protests. Curiously, Anna stays by her husband's side because she's secretly convinced that his claim of innocence is a lie: she believes that "Men are Men". And she admires Graham's stamina under pressure.
Term of Trial has its prerequisite Kitchen Sink content -- Shirley's sister Joan (Barbara Ferris) is a cheap tease and prostitutes pass by on the public housing walkway. Mitchell and his 'lads' waylay Shirley in a vacant lot and threaten her with rape and a razor-slashing. Weir himself is beaten up by Mitchell's older friends as a warning against further schoolroom punishments. The most credible of these moments is when Mitchell and the formerly demure Shirley put on a make-out exhibition for Graham's benefit in a train corridor. The display says everything about juvenile rebellion: "You know you want to do this but you're a broken-down old fool. We hate you".
A couple of other details are not as successful. A sidebar storyline about an eager student crippled by a miserable home life leads to a fiery incident of attempted arson, and is then dropped. Terence Stamp's Mitchell character also exits the story abruptly. The BBFC rated Term of Trial Certificate "X" at 138 minutes, indicating that 25 full minutes were cut. The way the end title is presented on this American version is suspect as well. Perhaps the movie didn't originally end there -- ?
One regrettable scene shows Graham Weir's disgust at the permissiveness of modern society. He pauses before some storefronts. One group of boys at a bookshop ogles the unclothed women on some girlie magazines, while another group stares solemnly at a rack of beefcake "male health" magazines. Then comes the ultimate horror, a jazz music store with a couple of black enthusiasts loitering innocently in the doorway. The message is clear: if negroes can consort openly on the streets, English society must be in eclipse.
Term of Trial isn't the usual toothless exposé of slum conditions and official hypocrisy. Graham Weir's plight is compounded by his complicated relationships with an emotional teenager and his disapproving wife, neither of whom share his belief in doing the right thing. Weir is granted the customary solo courtroom plea against injustice, an opportunity that Laurence Olivier builds into something marvelous. For a moment we're just as proud as Anna is, to see Graham finally assert his personal outrage. From that point on Term of Trial is a series of satisfying surprises.
In the first half of the movie Olivier's character is such an ineffectual fool that he seems to be channeling the personality of American actor Kent Smith in the noir Nora Prentiss. Simone Signoret's Anna is a beauty gone to seed, still attractive but bored and unhappy -- the actress makes Anna's basic lack of principles wholly convincing. Sarah Miles is a charmer as Shirley, the girl from the projects who doesn't know her own mind. After playing starry-eyed and needy for so long, it's chilling to see her turn so viciously on Graham.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Term of Trial is a very good enhanced B&W transfer with clear audio, a necessity considering the variety of English accents spoken and mumbled throughout. The framing looks a bit tight at 1:85, indicating that cameraman Oswald Morris' images may have originally been tightly framed at 1:66. No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Term of Trial rates:
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