Oct. 31, 2009

A Taste of Honey (1961)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Rita Tushingham, Murray Melvin, Dora Bryan

What it's about. This working class drama is set in an English city. Jo (Rita Tushingham) is an older teenager fairly unhappy with her life, which includes colorful, hard-living mother Helen (Dora Bryan). Helen works as a blowsy entertainer at a seedy bar, where she sings risqué numbers in the style of Benny Hill.

Bad news for Jo arrives when her mother begins a relationship with younger man Peter (Robert Stephens), a jerk who may be attracted to her but certainly doesn't love her. Jo and Peter dislike each other from the get-go.

Jo has a good figure but is not exactly pretty. Nonetheless, black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) becomes smitten with her following a chance meeting. The feeling is mutual, and soon Jo is pregnant, while Jimmy is gone for good across the seven seas.

By this time, Jo has moved out, unable to get along with Peter. Jo gets own skid row apartment, and pays the bills via a job selling shoes. There, she befriends Geoffrey, a homosexual whose activities caused his landlord to evict him. Geoffrey moves in with Jo, and doesn't mind at all that she's pregnant. He's even willing to marry her, but the would-be family is disrupted by the addition of Helen, who by now has broken up with Peter.

How others will see it. By 1961, Tony Richardson was the hottest and most successful young British director. He was the leader of a movement toward realistic and low budget "kitchen sink" dramas that attempted to depict the struggles of the ordinary working class. This was a departure from the David Lean style of costly epics set in exotic locales, and also a contrast to the myriad glamorous James Bond movies then about to conquer American audiences.

Richardson's career would peak in 1963 with Tom Jones, which won a slew of Oscars and BAFTA awards. But A Taste of Honey was no mere stepping stone between his breakthrough film, Look Back in Anger (1958), and Tom Jones. Although completely ignored by the Academy Awards, A Taste of Honey was hailed by BAFTA, which named it Best British Film among other wins. imdb.com voters give higher grades to both A Taste of Honey and Richardson's follow-up, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, than to Tom Jones, probably because the latter film is a comedy and a period piece and thus less "authentic." (We like Tom Jones better, anyway. Sometimes a generous budget can be put to good use.)

How I felt about it. The casting is a bit odd. The actor playing Jimmy, Jo's sailor lover, was 17 years older than her. The actor playing Geoffrey was only one year younger than the actor playing Peter. Although Dora Bryan was 37, the ideal age to play Jo's mother, Bryan looks several years older, presumably due to a hard life. (Jo tells her mother at one point, "You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.") It is thus difficult to understand Peter's interest in Helen, unless he is a great admirer of her veddy English delivery of pub songs.

Also, we wonder why Geoffrey is so set on supporting Jo and her pending baby. What happened to the sex drive of his that had got him evicted? And if he is so determined to be with Jo, why does he run off once take-charge Helen moves in?

Thus, we have memorable characters, but the ties between them are dubious. The only relationships that make sense are between Jo and Jimmy (both are in need of love), and between Jo and Helen (typical love-hate between an outspoken mother and daughter). The final curiosity is a big street bonfire assembled and lit by street urchins: even in 1961, didn't you need a permit and adult supervision for such "celebrations"?