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A Taste of Honey

(1962) *** 1/2 Unrated
100 min. Continental Distributing. Director: Tony Richardson. Cast: Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens.

/content/films/4950/2.jpgAnyone conversant in theatre history knows the phrase "kitchen-sink drama," an influential subgenre of the British stage that featured "angry young men" railing against economic injustice and disappointments in their personal lives. But as the cheeky monkey who wrote the program note for Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play A Taste of Honey pointed out about the eighteen-year-old playwright: "She is the antithesis of a London's 'angry young man.' She knows what she's angry about."

The working-class despair and searing youthful energy of kitchen-sink drama swiftly migrated from the West End to the British film industry. Arguably the most important figure straddling these plays and films was director and producer Tony Richardson. Richardson directed for stage and screen the defining kitchen-sink work Look Back in Anger (circa 1959), The Entertainer (1960), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), as well as producing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for fellow Free Cinema movement director Karel Reisz. Richardson's 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey (which he had also directed for the Broadway stage) pushed the culture-shock of kitchen-sink drama further with its female protagonist and depictions and discussions of interracial coupling, teen pregnancy, the possibility of abortion, and homosexuality. Though certain hot-button words are avoided to pass the censors,  in all other respects, the frankness of Delaney's dramatizations (co-scripted for the screen by Richardson) is unmistakeable.

The filmed caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, where Rita Tushingham collected the Best Actress prize and Murray Melvin the Best Actor one. Tushingham plays Jo, a a seventeen-year-old girlliving hand-to-mouth with her ne'er-d-well mother Helen (Dora Bryan). After a credits sequence set to the children's song "The Big Ship Sails on The Ally-ally-oh" ("on the last day of September"), the story begins with what is, for Jo, an unhappy game of schoolgirl netball. A Taste of Honey goes on to contrast the trappings of innocent youth with the intrusions of adult and young-adult disappointments. More or less ostracized, and unable to bond with her mother, Jo prefers lone play, blowing a soap bubble or rattling a stick along a fence—that is, until she catches the attention of a black sailor named Jimmy (Paul Danquah).

Although this contrast of youthful naiveté and hard-won experience extends to the last frame, Delaney's story is just as much about the privileges not extended to women and homosexuals. Life may not be peaches and cream for the northern working-class men of the story—Jimmy and Helen's glass-eye-sporting swain Peter (Robert Stephens)—but they can at least move with as much freedom as their economic status affords them, which is considerably more than their female counterparts. Society expects Jo and Helen to be economically and emotionally dependent on their men, and their respective pubescent hormonal circumstance and bitter personal history make them incapable of offering each other much in the way of support. And though the irony remains unspoken, it's right before our eyes: Jimmy sails out on the open sea, relatively free, while Jo remains hemmed in and weighed down by the predictable pregnancy for which he's half-responsible.

Walter Lassally's evocative location photography finds dark beauty in both the cramped corners and the blighted wide-open (especially the canals and bridges) of industrial Lancashire. In a mother-daughter exchange about fear of the dark, Jo remarks, "It's not the darkness outside I'm frightened of. It's the darkness inside houses I don't like." It's a valid concern, partly since Helen is so poorly equipped to parent (and knows it) and partly because of the threat represented by Peter, whose darkness of personality hardly inspires confidence of a happy-family future. Although Jo blithely ignores her fuddy-duddy teacher's recitation of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" in English class—which might well have spoken to her grasping for hope—Richardson takes care to give her symbolic glimpses of light in the dark, from Jo's starry-eyed first kiss to the bonfire and sparklers of a spontaneous courtyard Guy Fawkes Day party.

Perhaps it's Keats' nightingale that Jo finds expired on the pavement. "Look at that. It's dead," she laments. "A bit of love, a bit of lust and there you are. We don't ask for life. We have it thrust upon us." Delaney's play comes stocked full of quotable lines delivered in north-country dialect, and more often naturalistic ones embodying character. Teen-angsty petulant, Jo retorts to her mum, "Tomorrow? What makes you think we're going to live that long?" To modern eyes and ears, the acting may not always seem so naturalistic (that's mostly down to extensive post-production looping of dialogue), but it invariably remains affecting. With Delaney and Richardson's help, each principal actor earns legitimate heartache or, at least, inkings of understanding for her or his character. The strange unease within the distinctly, credibly specific relationship of Helen and Peter has a ring of truth: though their age difference is only eight years, there's something needily, selfishly unwholesome about what Peter calls a "mother-and-son relationship."

/content/films/4950/1.jpgArguably the most remarkable element of A Taste of Honey, though, is the "second act" appearance of Geoffrey Ingham, the breakthrough gay character portrayed frankly and with great sympathy by Murray Melvin (Barry Lyndon). Melvin had originated the role on the West End, and it's the rare performance that might actually be called "brave" given that homosexuality was still outlawed and, technically, punishable by death in England ("I was gay pride," Melvin says today). Though the film is 55 years old, it remains perhaps the most thorough dramatization of the pull, even platonic romance, between so many women and so many gay men. Melvin meets Jo by buying a pair of shoes from her, and later happens upon her at a parade. Making a day of it by taking in a funfair, the two begin their relationship in a socially scripted "date." It doesn't take long for Jo to peg Geoff as gay, and they proceed to play house in Jo's squalid apartment in an implicitly temporary fantasy of domesticity as both work out their respective issues. As marginalized by society, they understand each other and, unlike mother and daughter, they speak to each other in a common language of youthful hopes and fears. Theirs is the film's only true, though tragically star-crossed, love story.

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Aspect ratios: 1.66:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM Mono

Street date: 8/23/2016

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

Criterion delivers a fabulous Blu-ray special edition of A Taste of Honey: hopefully a harbinger of future Woodfall Films releases. The picture quality, billed as a "New, restored, 4K digital transfer," is entirely winning, with expertly calibrated contrast, sharp detail and texture, and no sign of digital artifacts within the stable and clean image, scrubbed free of "dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps"and corrected for jitter and flicker by way of the digital tools favored by Criterion. The linear PCM mono track also pleases in its faithful rendering of the original audio, likewise cleaned up for maximum clarity, cleanliness, and fidelity.

A fantastic suite of bonus features contextualizes the film, beginning with extensive new interviews with Cannes award winners “Rita Tushingham” (18:17, HD) and “Murray Melvin” (18:38, HD). We also get an archival audio interview with late director and coscreenwriter “Tony Richardson” (15:02, HD) conducted at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival (15:02, HD), an excerpt from a 1960 “Close-Up(15:17, HD) television interview with A Taste of Honey playwright Shelagh Delaney (15:17, HD), and a 1998 interview with cinematographer “Walter Lassally” (19:51, HD).

The new video essay “Remaking British Theater” (21:30, HD)—subtitled "Joan Littlewood and A Taste of Honey”—allows theater scholar Kate Dorney to explain the kitchen-sink era, while the Free Cinema movement gets further represented by Richardson's 1956 short film “Momma Don’t Allow” (21:11, HD), shot by Lassally. As always, Criterion packages the disc with stellar liner notes, in this case a fold-out pamphlet with photos, credits, tech specs, and an essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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