Few stars were as willing to trade their glamorous screen persona for a decent role as Elizabeth Taylor, here eschewing the trademark hip swivel, low cut dresses and elegant costumes for a clumping walk, frumpy look and eating with her mouth full. After a chance meeting on top of a bus with rich waif Cenci (Mia Farrow) middle-aged prostitute Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) swaps a dingy bedsit for life in a massive mansion, cupboards stuffed full of furs, all her needs met. Cenci seeks a mother; Leonora, whose daughter drowned aged ten, seeks a child substitute.
Soon Leonora is prisoner to a fantasist, her own identity swamped by Cenci’s needs, accepting the role of “mummy” as the price of a life of luxury until she learns that what appears so freely given can be as easily taken away. This cloistered life is creepy. Cenci has rape fantasies. To a pair of interfering and thieving aunts, Leonora pretends to be Cenci’s dead mother’s cousin.
The fantasy conjured is threatened by the presence of Cenci’s poet stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum) who intends to become the girl’s legal guardian. He talks like a child molester, “the extraordinary purity of my longings,” but given the depth of Cenci’s fantasies Leonora initially discounts inappropriate behavior on his part especially when Cenci wishes to become inappropriate with her. If Leonora stands in Albert’s way it is only to have the girl – and her wealth – to herself.
A psychological drama that appears more like a stage play in structure, skirting around core issues in favor of later revelation, and in essence making a good effort at dealing with behavioral problems which would find greater currency today – inherited mental illness, PTSD, low self-esteem, abuse, and incest. Though the last area is hard to specify, on the basis that, technically, Albert is a stepfather rather than a father, underage sex would appear to be more likely.
In an era when permissiveness virtually ensured audience shock, director Joseph Losey makes a decent stab at presenting the impact of sex on the vulnerable, despite her apparent steely exterior Leonora damaged by life as a sex worker, Cenci pretending to be younger as if that can sustain her innocence, not realizing how appealing that would be to a predator.
At once hypnotic and impenetrable, this is director Joseph Losey (The Servant, 1964) at his best, a story that by its subject matter must remain obscure, a mother-daughter relationship that should be twisted but reveals nothing but tenderness, ending for a time the torment of the emotionally unfulfilled, but when bonds appear to be strengthened they are fragmenting. However, the film is let down by the script and the somewhat grand guignol setting. Losey is wonderful at times with nothing to say just a prowling camera, only two lines of dialogue exchanged in the first 15 minutes. You would certainly file it under “eclectic.”
The two main performances are electric. This is Taylor at her powerhouse best, her profession not glamorized as in Butterfield 8 (1968) and no male to bring to heel, and her last scene with Cenci is extremely touching. This was a bold role, too, for Mia Farrow after the success of Rosemary’s Baby (1967) turned her into a box office star. She brings believability to a difficult role, especially as she is far from the spoiled child one might expect.
Robert Mitchum fans must have received the fright of their life to see their hero not just with uncomely beard but portraying a sinister character, not an out-and-out villain which would have been acceptable, but fast forward a couple of years and you can see evidence here of the kind of portrayal he would evince in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Look out for Peggy Ashcroft (The Nun’s Story, 1959) in a smaller role, her first film in nearly a decade.