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Fans of British star Jenny Agutter will delight in Scorpion Releasing's disc of 1980's Sweet William, an intense adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge's novel about a highly exploitative relationship. Agutter excels in a difficult role -- to many her put-upon young woman will seem a pathetic pushover. Sam Waterston is equally adept playing the kind of man many girls dream of, even if the eventual price is one's self-respect.
The tone of Sweet William suggests that its writer, the celebrated Beryl Bainbridge, has plenty of experience with shattered dreams of youthful love, predatory males and complicated sexual relationships. Yet the movie never settles for ordinary cynicism. Its view of romance is half ecstasy and half nightmare.
Ann Walton (Agutter) is engaged to Gerald (Tim Pigott-Smith) but becomes resentful when he leaves to teach in America for a few months, and refuses to take her with him. Ann is subsequently swept off her feet by William McCluskey (Sam Waterston), a busy playwright with a zest for life and mad romantic streak. Their relationship seems a dream come true. Only after Ann returns Gerald's ring does she begin to learn what's going on with William: he has an ex-wife named Sheila that he still sees (Victoria Fairbrother) and a present wife, Edna (Anna Massey of Peeping Tom) who he visits as well. Both Ann and Edna have accepted William's assurances that he is dedicated to them alone. Ann becomes pregnant, but by this time is a mass of confusion and indecision. Plenty of evidence suggests that William is sleeping with practically every woman she knows -- her cousin Pamela (Geraldine James) and even a neighbor (Rachel Bell). He's also a master of manipulation as he dictates notes calculated to play one woman off another. Yet Ann can't help herself -- every time William shows up with his beautiful words of love, she accepts his version of reality and welcomes him back.
Sweet William will be taken by some as insanity, but the kinds of things that happen to Ann aren't at all rare. Despite the images given in books and films, there's no such thing as normal in human relationships. Every romance is a different animal, and equity and fairness between the sexes (or what have you) is not a prerequisite. Plenty of people find some degree fulfillment in (or "settle for") relationships that might make us shudder. The chemistry of relationships allows no firm rule of thumb. In Sweet William Ann is obviously first impressed by William when she discovers he's a significant theatrical talent. He even rents a TV for her so she can see his appearance on a talk show, discussing his new play. William woos Ann with beautiful words and forceful action ... he's barely known her a day or two before he simply backs her into her bedroom with amorous intent. And Ann loves every minute of it.
Naturally, we're soon wondering when the balloon will burst. This isn't so much a way-of-all-flesh tale as an affirmation that the same old romantic tricks that have served Casanovas since Bible days, still work like gangbusters. The open, generous Ann gives William the benefit of the doubt. By the time she's forced into meeting his wife, she barely has any free will left. William is one of those men so enamored of their personal life spirit that they feel they can juggle and satisfy a personal harem of adoring females. What he really sells is aggravated self-serving emotional abuse. William enjoys his adventures, and his women go through various forms of hell. He thinks nothing of zipping to Liverpool to sleep with Pamela, meeting Ann on the train for a major romantic rendezvous, and then spending alternate nights back home with Edna. The sympathetic Edna is also living in denial. She clings to the fantasy that William is about to break up with Ann at any moment, and even buys Ann a baby carriage as a good luck present. Ann is likewise convinced that William is sincere when he says he'll be with her always. But he could easily wave bye-bye with a smile, and disappear forever.
Stories of this kind are often sublimated into a genre thriller, perhaps a murder mystery in which we investigate a notorious ladies' man's many conquests. Such stories usually finish with some kind of moral pronouncement and dramatic retribution -- unrealistic elements that the wise Beryl Bainbridge refuses to indulge. Sweet William acknowledges that many men would happily juggle two, three or more lovers if they felt they could get away with it. For the rich, the beautiful and the talented this is not an unusual state of affairs. When the wild hormones subside, it's the women who end up pregnant or that suffer from social stigma. The only men who seem vulnerable targets are those living in glass houses, like foolish politicians.
Director Claude Whatham (That'll Be the Day) acquits himself admirably in what might be called an updated "kitchen sink" movie. He handles particularly well scenes showing Ann's depressing home life with her pea-brained, oppressive mother, very nicely played by Daphne Oxenford. The old monster seems a complete loss, until she too seems to get a thrill out of William's pounding on Ann's door at the crack of dawn: "He's just like Heathcliff!" Ann's miserable father (Arthur Lowe) is so dominated by his harpy of a wife, that he's practically given up speech altogether. Ann finds him down by the breakwater with waves washing dangerously around him. The man would clearly like a way out of it all.
I can easily imagine Sweet William making plenty of women angry. Although the film reserves a wry bit of irony for its fade-out, there is no comeuppance for William and no deus ex feminist-machina emotional payback. As much as I admire feminist goals, I resent today's culture mindset vis-a-vis sexual stereotypes, that overcompensate for past crimes. Back in the 1950s advertising presented women as moronic dolts, but now the men are pictured as idiots in contrast to empowered take-charge female role models. Movies were once shameless male sex fantasies. If a mainstream movie of today has nudity, it's far more likely that it'll be a male butt that's on display. I saw women walk out of Pedro Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! because they were outraged that a movie would dare show a female victim of kidnapping and rape who grows to love her kidnapper. Grow up! Get a life! All things are possible under the sun, and all's fair in love and war.
Jenny Agutter could easily come off as a complete fool and a ninny, and at times that's exactly how her character feels about herself. Ann's only failing is her irrational trust in William, when she has so much to lose and he has so little. Ann rolls from shock to shock but repeatedly accepts William when he come trotting back showering her with attention and affection. At the end we hope something will happen to break the cycle, but he's already claimed her heart and has no intention of playing fair. Given the right circumstances, William will have a good chance of once again charming his way into her bed.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of Sweet William is an acceptable transfer of a film fallen into relative obscurity. I don't recall an American release and barely remember it in passing during the early years of cable television. The transfer has light colors, and some grain that may be a part of its original look. The encoding also seems a tiny bit weak, which sacrifices sharpness in shots with strong contrast, such as the main titles. But Sweet William is a movie of many close-ups, and Scorpion's widescreen enhanced transfer gives us the whole image with balanced compositions.
A trailer is included, along with previews for other Scorpion attractions. I just learned that Scorpion will be releasing some more hard-to-see titles in November, the desirable Sci-Fi spy thriller Who? and Robert Downey Sr.'s black comedy Greaser's Palace.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sweet William rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.