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The Romantic Englishwoman
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Romantic Englishwoman
Kino International
1975 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date June 21, 2011 / 29.95
Starring Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine, Helmut Berger, Michael Lonsdale, Béatrice Romand, Kate Nelligan, Nathalie Delon, Reinhard Kolldehoff.
Gerry Fisher
Film Editor Reginald Beck
Original Music Richard Hartley
Written by Tom Stoppard, Thomas Wiseman from his novel
Produced by Daniel M. Angel
Directed by Joseph Losey

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Romantic Englishwoman is a late-career film by Joseph Losey, a director that has always had a polarizing effect on film critics. Losey has been lauded as the best director of his time for his intellectually acute, narratively ambiguous collaborations with Harold Pinter: The Servant, Accident. Others find him a maker of pretentious and boring art films. Beautifully produced and given strong, committed performances by its stars Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine, The Romantic Englishwoman was co-written by the celebrated Tom Stoppard.

The story develops from an unpromising self-referential concept. Successful writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) agrees to work on a screenplay for producer Herman (Rene Kolldehoff) about "a new woman" who flees the restraints of marriage. Lewis thinks that's a boring idea, and suggests that it be turned into a thriller. But the parallel to Fielding's situation is all too clear. His own wife Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) has simply left their house and child with the nanny and taken a train to the resort of Baden-Baden, where she flirts with a mysterious young vagabond in fancy dress, a gigolo named Thomas (Helmut Berger). Elizabeth soon returns to the suspicious Lewis, who feels convinced that his wife had a brief affair. For her part Elizabeth wonders if Lewis has slept with the nanny in her absence. She's put out when Lewis insults her best friend Isabel (Kate Nelligan; her first feature film) for prying. Worse, when Thomas calls and says he's in England and would like to meet him, Lewis invites the fellow over. A tea visit turns into an open-ended guest stay. Still suspicious, Lewis wants to provoke Elizabeth, and gain insight for his screenplay. Thomas' ingratitude and nerve goad the couple to further extremes of marital stress, and it looks as if Lewis is driving his wife straight into the stranger's arms. What neither of them realize is that Thomas brings a "thriller" aspect into their story ... he smuggles drugs for a living, and gangster Swan (Michael Lonsdale) is after him for losing a shipment.

Critics down on The Romantic Englishwoman are quick to slam Helmut Berger as a non-actor dragging down fine efforts by the other stars. The inference is that director Losey has borrowed Luchino Visconti's discovery for his physical appearance. Berger is actually quite good at sketching the self-contained, devious and irritatingly insulting Thomas. The gigolo mocks the Fieldings' lavish house and grounds and openly sneers at them for questioning his willingness to mooch off of them indefinitely. As soon as Lewis offers him a nominal fee for typing some letters, Thomas asks if he's going to be given car privileges. Asked why he never says as much as a casual "thank you", Thomas comes back with a litany of contemptuous, faux-fawning obeisance. Frankly, we wonder why Lewis and Elizabeth don't fall upon the German louse with whatever is at hand and beat him to death on the parlor rug. But this is a sophisticated story and the Fieldings apparently have an avid appreciation of irony.

Glenda Jackson is marvelous, indeed. She arrives at the palatial Baden-Baden hotel with eyes wide, amused to see Thomas bumming his way to the spa and then latching onto various older women (and their tiny dogs). The first of director Losey's "grand acts of ambiguity" comes when Thomas tries to pick up Elizabeth. He follows her into an elevator, and we're treated to bursts of impassioned imagery. These fantasies are shared by Elizabeth, who clearly would like a sexual adventure, and by the imaginative Lewis, who only knows that his wife met somebody in an elevator.

Domestic frustrations interrupt the couple's attempts to wax conjugal upon Elizabeth's return -- a crying boy, a pompous neighbor. Lewis is angered by household activities that make concentrating on his writing impossible. He's really a control freak upset that wifey has slipped from under his thumb. Inviting Thomas and then keeping him around is an act of marital suicide, no question. Thomas doesn't have to do anything to get the nanny all heated up about him and his hosts are soon at each other's throats. But everything is either delightfully ambiguous (sayeth Losey lovers) or maddeningly unexplained (Losey haters). We never find out if any kissy-kissy hanky-panky happened in Baden-Baden, really-really.

Is this a good Michael Caine performance? Caine's acting is fine but he doesn't really seem suited to the role of a reserved intellectual, especially one without a sense of humor. A movie where Michael Caine doesn't smile had better be a murderous crime story, like Get Carter. Caine blows up nicely at Kate Nelligan's gossip, but also has a weak drunk scene in a restaurant, dancing with Nathalie Delon. The Fieldings become social as a way of escaping from each other, but they're not really ready to interact in public.

For the final third of the show Losey and Stoppard take the characters back to France and Italy, to fulfill the "thriller" promise. Thomas's one interesting comment about Lewis's books is a defense of his use of the notion of coincidence, which happens all the time in real life but frowned upon as a cheap writing device. The consummate cad, thief and bounder Thomas is done in by a coincidental meeting at a fancy restaurant. Losey shows him being tracked down, always at a sober distance and resisting even a hint of a "thriller-ish" effect. On one level this standoffish attitude loads every shot with additional menace. We're invited to reach our own conclusions, but robbed of any sense of finality. This extends to the film's artsy last shots that leave us in a sudden state of confusion. Are those Lewis and Elizabeth's party invitees, or has their house been invaded by an army of uninvited houseguests?

The Romantic Englishwoman is like a number of earlier Losey 3-character stories, most strongly The Sleeping Tiger, which is about a psychiatrist's unexplained male houseguest, a criminal who attempted to mug him. The only ambiguous angle not probed in The Romantic Englishwoman is a homosexual connection between Thomas and Lewis; I think we can rule that out. Given his tendency for obfuscation, Losey's direction is elegant throughout. We really soak in the atmosphere of the Fieldings' cozy showplace house, and Elizabeth's trip to the German spa is rich with detail. We never feel that the director is getting anything other than exactly what he wants on film.

Kino International's Blu-ray of The Romantic Englishwoman is a truly beautiful transfer that captures the colors and moods of the cold Baden-Baden location and Glenda Jackson's impressive wardrobe. Actually, Helmut Berger is probably prettier and better dressed than she is. We also remember the textures of the fancy coats and other items that he steals. And the movie provides an important professional tip for drug smugglers -- a rain gutter is a very unwise place to stash a bag of heroin.

A trailer and some stills are offered as extra. The va-voom artwork on the package title overstates the film's sensuality, probably in an effort to remind viewers of Ms. Jackson's sensuous turn in the great Women in Love.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Romantic Englishwoman Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: none
Supplements: trailer, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2011

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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