The British appear to have a special gift for romantic melodrama that is not often discussed. Perhaps it’s this image we and other cultures have of us as the country of eloquent yet courteous love, where emotions are either contained or sublimated into something grand and beautiful. The base passions, grandiloquent heartstring-tugging and baroque style so strongly associated with melodramas tends to be viewed, perhaps unconsciously, as something too vulgar to be “properly British”.
And yet, joining such illustrious classics as Black Narcissus, Brief Encounter and Room At The Top, The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne brings further evidence that this famous British prim-and-properness is precisely one of the reasons why our melodramas tend to be so good. Jack Clayton, whose aforementioned feature-length début Room At The Top had defied British censors with its uncommonly frank exploration of male lust for sex and power, flips the tables here by telling us a tale of female powerlessness, solitude and self-loathing. If one believes in full circles, it is fitting that this would turn out to be his last film.
Throughout her life Judith Hearne has been a model of Irish Catholicism to a fault, sacrificing her own needs and desires for the sake of her aunt’s – a way of paying her back the kindness she showed her by taking her in after her parents’ untimely deaths. Flashbacks of this past life usually come to her following a moment of weakness or transgression, like a lesson learned to the point of reflex. The very first scene is a reversal of that configuration: 7 year-old Judith attending Mass with her dignified old Aunt D’Arcy. After receiving a sip of Jesus’s blood, she lets out a hiccup that evolves into a contagious giggle. As its transmission to other girls threatens to perturb the ceremony, Aunt D’Arcy grabs her hand and squeezes it tight, cutting off the brief spontaneous connection she formed with those nameless comrades. By the time young Judith’s face has dissolved into that of her older self, the film’s main themes and ideas have all been subversively introduced.
Her eyes and posture seem to pre-emptively apologize on her behalf for any inconvenience she may cause, a stark contrast to her too-sweet landlady Mrs. Rice and her overweight, fair-haired “poet” of a son Bernard, whose silky red gown and high-pitched smarm make him a grotesque caricature of effeteness. Yet we do not yet consciously suspect that there may be more to her meek demeanour than simple good manners and Christian humility. When she first locks eyes with her landlady’s brash, American-accented brother James (the ever magnificent and increasingly missed Bob Hoskins) and listens rapturously as he waxes poetic on the wonders of New York, we are led to believe that this will be a gentle tale of belated love and second chances, told with characteristic British delicacy.
We have no idea.
It starts with a coldly polite allusion to “things that happened”, made by the disapproving mother of one of Judith’s piano students. James violently berating Bernard and the maid after catching them mid-tryst. Then, there’s a pub conversation between James and a drunk “business partner” during which they fantasize about owning a business in Haiti and fetishize native women. Finally, after three dates during which the two seem to grow increasingly close, Mrs. Rice’s cruel dressing-down of James’s New York activities – an insurance scam artist rather than the successful businessman he presented himself as – exposes the would-be couple’s hidden natures through their respective methods of coping with the disaster: Judith succumbs to temptation and relapses into alcoholism. James acts on his lust and rapes the maid in her bed.
From then on, Peter Nelson’s screenplay zeroes in on Judith’s isolation – not only from a household that looks down on her drinking with scorn and from a God that never seems to reward her faith, but also and especially from a society that neither conforms to the upbringing it provided her nor delivers on its promises. “A woman never gives up her hope! “There’s always a Mr. Right” they say!” she sobs after what looked like a last chance at marriage turns out to be a business proposal in disguise.
It’s a seemingly inescapable trap where communication seems all but impossible, and Maggie Smith conveys that struggle with extraordinary precision, making every loss of dignity, every moment Judith dares to hope that she might find happiness for herself, a shocking and heartrending event. As it is with so many melodramas, her strong, compassionate performance is half the reason for the film’s success. One of the more striking examples comes at the climax of Judith’s crisis of faith: An overhead shot of a drunk Judith screaming “I hate you!” at a church altar, followed by medium eye-level shots of her clawing at Heaven’s gates before pulling the altar cloth and candles down in a montage combining both angles, as her cries of “Let me in!” are echoed and repeated. By all rights, it should come across as camp, heavy-handed and overblown. Instead, it’s one of the film’s saddest and most shocking moments. Melodrama at its finest.
Modern viewers may find it difficult not to compare Judith’s crisis of faith – something that, incidentally, seems to only ever be portrayed in fiction as a Catholic thing – to Maurice Bendrix’s “diary of hate” towards God from Neil Jordan’s underrated adaptation of Graham Greene’s The End Of The Affair1. Indeed, Greene had famously referred to Judith Hearne’s author Brian Moore as his “favourite living novelist”. Both film adaptations work well, but The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne is made especially affecting by the permanent emotional displacement of its protagonist; there seems to be no place for Judith unless she resigns herself to her fate and does not stray from the habits she has accustomed herself to for most of her life. The film’s last shots, in which she makes a sacrificial decision, thus lend themselves to multiple interpretations: Has she finally made a step towards a better life, or is she simply repeating the same pattern until another false hope comes up? Has she truly made peace, or is it mere obedience to societal conditioning? Whatever the answer, the questions linger in our minds long after the credits have ended.
1Previously adapted by Edward Dmytryk in a 1955 film version, unseen by me as of this writing.