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Cinema: The Poetry of Wasted Lives

3 minute read

A Taste of Honey (Continental) is a heady pint of bitter drawn from that always-sputtering bung of discontent, the British working class. In the last three years several interesting English movies and two magnificent ones (Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) have been tapped from the same source. This picture, based on a play by Shelagh Delaney, a Lancashire bus driver’s daughter who was 18 when she wrote it, is as good as the best. In her first film script, touched up by Director Tony Richardson, the angry young ma’am displays dramatic drive, concussive humor, a barmaid’s ear for dialogue, a slum kitten’s shrewdness about people and motives, a melancholy flair for the poetry of wasted lives.

She tells the story of the illegitimate teen-aged daughter (Rita Tushingham) of a village idiot and a good-time shirley (Dora Bryan). Father is long since na poo; mother and daughter drift through dreary digs in Manchester, flying by night when the rent comes round. Mother sops it up all night, sleeps it off all day, rather likes her daughter when she’s nothing worse to do. The girl, given a wit too many and a skin too few, is so hungry for affection that she bites her mother’s head off 30 times a day. Grows back, though, and mother uses it to persuade a used-car salesman (Robert Stephens) that he wants to marry her. “But we’re not ‘avin’ the kid with us,” he bellows in broad Mancunian. “So think on that!”

Abandoned, the girl goes looking for love. The first thing she finds is trouble: a Negro sailor (Paul Danquah) who loves her and leaves her—pregnant. The second thing she finds is a friend: a shy young homosexual (Murray Melvin), who needs to give what she needs to receive: mother love. He moves into her flat and briskly “takes’ her in ‘and.” Runs her up some baby clothes, starts her eating properly for two, goes to the clinic for a stack of diapers and a doll to practice on. But all too soon the idyl ends. The old hen comes home to roost, the flit flies the coop, the heroine is left to hatch a hopeless future.

As the used-car salesman, Actor Stephens plays to panting perfection the sort of sly young fox who figures that if he chases the chickens hard enough he may get a goose. In the homosexual, Actor Melvin finds valor, humor, ethos, pathos, and a touching reminder that men who become women sometimes become good women. With the mother, Actress Bryan accomplishes a masterpiece of caricature. Voice like a firebell, hair like fried sash-cord, face notched with conquests like a sheriff’s six gun, she is the wiggling, giggling, jiggling image of the beery old bim.

Against all this powerful opposition, Actress Tushingham, 19 when the film was made, holds her own with an ease that seems incredible, considering her principal previous experience: as the rear end of a donkey in a provincial production. She has a kind of elementary female beauty—big hips, small breasts, long, delicate face—that is seldom seen on the modern screen, and she plays with delicious naturalness and a wonderful wild freedom of feeling. She understands that the daughter is no ordinary heroine. Author Delaney has created a wise child who knows its own mother and is fearlessly determined to know herself, to know life: a female hero, Oliver Twist in a maternity dress.

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