Dramatically undernourished coming-of-age tale over-reliant on “authentic” travelogue and continuing the transformation of Hayley Mills from child to adult star, although that change had been clearly wrought by her previous outing in The Family Way (1966) which had contained her first nude scene. While there’s definitely way more sex here it’s all off-screen.
In Singapore, family black sheep Robert (Trevor Howard) tries to stifle romance blossoming between his ugly duckling niece Polly (Hayley Mill) and local king of the fixers Amaz (Shashi Kapoor), to quote from list of the clichés the screenplay happily summons up. Polly is the bespectacled, dowdy, shy travelling companion to snippy aunt (Brenda de Banzie) – Robert’s sister not wife – who resides in a magnificent suite in Raffles Hotel, consigning her niece to a hovel of a room. When said aunt drops dead in the swimming pool, Polly, wasting no time on mourning, is free to turn butterfly, channeling her inner Brigitte Bardot with bouffant hairstyle and tight red dress.
The genial Amaz is on hand as a guide, in sexual matters as well as tourist, until huffing-and-puffing plantation manager Robert threatens to intervene and smarmy American Critch (Peter Bayliss) attempts to sweep her off her feet. And that’s about it, plot-wise. The meandering story provides insights into different aspects of local culture – Whicker’s World was the only globe-trotting television series available at the time so all this would probably have entranced moviegoers rather than, as now, bored them to death.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is what’s left unsaid or never dwelt upon, of the posh English girl having sex with a native of Singapore. In previous movies – Bhowani Junction et al – miscegenation would have been the sole plot point with Brits up in arms at the suggestion of it. Here, the only objection to Amaz is that he’s a bit of a Casanova, practised seducer in the main of older women. While Amaz falls in love, Polly is considerably more objective, viewing their relationship in terms of rite-of-passage, rather an un-British approach, more in keeping with the attitudes those bold females exhibited in pictures like The Group (1966).
Polly is a pretty cool-headed kid, with a good head for booze, not staggering in gutters or throwing up after imbibing too much, alert to the intentions of Critch and more than capable of putting her uncle in his place. Despite her delight at enjoying sex Polly is more independent than you might imagine and the film’s actually a character study of a woman refusing to be defined – or trapped – by love and its obvious consequence marriage and viewing this new freedom as merely the starting point of her life.
For Hayley Mills fans, of course, her career divides sharply into Disney and post-Disney. Few child stars ever manage to take the first steps to an adult career never mind sustain one, but the actress made a good stab at throwing off her previous precocious screen persona by taking on challenging roles that perhaps upset her core followers. But the film would have benefitted from a better storyline and minus the distracting tourist elements been a lot tighter.
The career of Trevor Howard, long-time second male lead, was on a bit of an upswing after sterling roles in Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Long Duel (1967) and although he remained the scowler supreme he brings more vulnerability to this role. Bollywood heartthrob Shashi Kapoor had come to prominence as far as the English-speaking countries were concerned through arthouse director James Ivory’s The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1966) but this was his mainstream debut. He certainly has a screen presence and enjoys the best character arc, going from the cynicism of sex to the innocence of love. I’m sure the title is intended to refer to Polly but she is innocent, in screen shorthand terms, for about two seconds. Pretty Polly, the title of the short story on which the film is based, was not usable in certain countries because the name was the trademark of a popular brand of hosiery.
This was the final film of Brenda de Banzie (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956) and the second for British television stalwart Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances, 1990-1995), while for Chinese star Kalen Liu (Welcome to Hard Times, 1967) it was both her second and last picture.
This was perhaps an odd choice for director Guy Green (A Patch of Blue, 1965) but he was mired in the on-again off-again saga of proposed MGM roadshow epic Forty Days of Musa Dagh and compared to those travails this may have been welcome light relief. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) developed the screenplay from Noel Coward’s short story.