Directors learned this early that you only had to point the camera at Judi Dench (Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love, 1998, but here in her first starring role) and even without the benefit of dialog she will always be compelling. And that’s just as well because this is one of those elliptical movies that were in fashion in the wake of Last Year in Marienbad (1960).
Less twisty and self-conscious for sure two apparently unconnected tales are conjoined by a mysterious drowning in the Thames. And this isn’t tourist London, either, but the working version, a city waking up, famed fruit and flower markets coming to life, ferryboat teaming with passengers, the skyline dominated by tiny dots setting off for the office.
In fact, the picture draws its power from three women, the aforementioned Dench as a young woman smothered by motherhood, marriage disintegrating, Ann Lynn (The System/The Girl-Getters, 1965) who breaks out of the supporting role cage where her character is generally fixed from the start to take advantage of a name-above-the-title role as a reticent lover to explore a gamut of emotions. Last of the trio is the drowned woman, whose callous treatment dominates the action.
If you ever wanted to find out what happens to a drownee here’s your chance. Unceremoniously dragged from the shore, transported to a mortuary in a coffin, head laid on a block of wood, clothes cut off, naked body sluiced with water, fingerprints taken, stored in a refrigerator, indignity run riot, it’s a harrowing sight.
As if to compound the movie’s arthouse sensibilities – and it won big at various film festivals – the characters remain anonymous. The wife (Judi Dench), stuck at home with a mewling teething infant, is disconcerted to find husband (Norman Rodway) has returned from a night on the town with buddy (Joe Melia) in tow. They want to continue partying, waking up wife and baby, resulting in non-stop argument.
Divorced manager of an upmarket bar (Ann Lynn) tries to put off a boyfriend (Brian Phelan) pestering her for a date. Eventually, she relents and they embark on an initially unsatisfying date before she finally comes alive when he steals a speedboat and they power upriver. Even when passion takes over she remains wary of commitment.
Beyond the to-and-fro of each couple’s situation, there’s little in the way of story, but the dialog is refreshing as it winds back and forth through a variety of emotions, including playfulness, a genuine sense that this is not about scoring points but exploring characters, each development the consequence of action however minimal. The mood is often bleak but always ruminative, a sense that emotions could tip at the touch of a switch, nothing quite defined, except that angst one way or another is going to hold sway.
Most British kitchen sink dramas of the period took place up north, not in the country’s capital, and the wife is too young to expect to be so hemmed in by motherhood, unable to grasp, what with the changing times, that she has still contracted, through marriage, to carry the burden of child-rearing.
The sting in the tale is that since the drowned woman is never identified that she turns out to be one or other of the women, my bet being on the wife, who seems at the end of her tether. This might have been more easily tagged as a couple of one-act plays except for the concentration on the drowning and the focus on girlfriend and suitor exploring various parts of the capital at its least tourist-y. But it’s almost a ghostly city, hardly the location for romance.
Judi Dench is superb – she won the Bafta that year as the Most Promising Newcomer – as she captures a character twisting and turning in a situation she never expected to be so depressing. But Ann Lynn, whose career did not have as much upward mobility, is equally expressive as she changes from morose to excited until heightened romance is sufficient to kill off any expectation of fulfilment. Norman Rodway (The Penthouse, 1967), Joe Melia (Modesty Blaise, 1966) and Brian Phelan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) has less room for development, tending to be more focused on pleasure than emotion.
This didn’t open too many doors for writer-director Anthony Simmons (Your Money or Your Wife, 1960) and he didn’t get behind a camera for another eight years and only made four films in total. Quite why he was so ignored remains a mystery because this is a haunting piece of work, with an excellent script. John Barry (The Lion in Winter, 1968) wrote evocative score.
Worth seeing for Dench’s performance alone.
2 thoughts on “Four in the Morning (1965) ****”
And here was me thinking A Study in Terror was the first recorded Dench, you have out-Denched me! This sounds good to me, as a Marienbad fan…
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Worth a look, not quite in the Resnais class but a very sober look at London and excellent dialogue. I don’t mean dialogue full of one-liners but dialogue that follows a more natural flow.