While Hollywood was capable of dealing with mental illness head-on in pictures like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the British were more inclined to take an alternative approach. The titular characters of Billy Liar (1963) and this film dealt with awkward reality by creating a fantasy world.
Morgan, played by David Warner in his first starring role, is a failed artist and virulent Communist who cannot come to terms with being divorced by rich Vanessa Redgrave who is planning to marry businessman Robert Stephens. Warner forces his way back into his wife’s house and attempts to win her back with nothing stronger than whimsicality and when that fails resorts to kidnap. And it is clear that she shares his fancy for furry animals, responding to his chest-pounding gorilla impression with tiny pats of her own chest. For a slim guy, Warner makes a believable stab at a gorilla, shoulders hunched up under his jacket, chest stuck out. And he has an animal’s sense of smell – detecting his rival’s hair oil.
But Vanessa Redgrave, in her second film and her first starring role, steals the picture, winning her first Oscar nomination (in the same year as sister Lynn for Georgy Girl). She is made of gossamer. Still attracted to a man she knows will only bring her pain, she is far from your normal leading lady. There is a touch of the Audrey Hepburn in her ethereality but she portrays a completely genuine soul, not a manufactured screen personality.
The tone of the film is surreal. Had David Attenborough been a big name then you could have cited him as one of director Karel Reisz’s influences, such was his predilection for inserting wildlife into the proceedings, not just primates but giraffes, a hippo, a peacock and a variety of other creatures. Some are comments on Morgan’s state of mind but after a while it becomes monotonous. The film is clearly intentionally all over the place, the class struggle also taking central stage, but it’s hard work for the viewer.
Having said that, towards the end of the picture there is an extraordinary image – possibly stolen from the opening of La Dolce Vita – of Warner in a straitjacket hanging from a crane. Had that been the film’s starting point, it might have dealt more demonstrably with the subject matter. The whimsy is all very well and Redgrave is delightful and while Warner is clearly on a mental descent the focus on external animals does little to illuminate his internal struggle. Also, having said that, Warner is imminently watchable. He has an intensity that is hard to ignore and usually is cast with that in mind but here his vulnerability, his inability to grasp that he is living in a different reality, is very touching. Even when his imagination is at its most vivid – such as when Redgrave appears at the end supposedly bearing his child – you are partly convinced that this may actually be true. I would have preferred less of the animal imagery and more of Warner’s true reaction to the world around him. It’s a case of performances spoiled by over-direction.
Setting aside the director’s indulgence, the film is remarkable in one other way. It was almost revolutionary to find a British picture that, despite Warner’s working-class agitation, is effectively about joie de vivre as opposed to the more traditional British stiff upper lip, that inbred stoicism afflicting the entire nation regardless of class status. While Lawrence of Arabia (1962) represented an exhibition of flamboyance, again not a British trait, and the truculent Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was determined to enjoy life to excess, Warner’s character epitomizes a desire to be free of normal cares in order to live life to the full.
Given the Warner would later be more famous buttoned-down roles – and that, in contrast, Redgrave would later portray another famous flamboyant in Isadora (1968) – it is surprising that this fun aspect of Warner’s screen persona was not called upon more often.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.