Brian (Alan Bates) is a schoolteacher married with Sheila (Janet Suzman). Their happy marriage has been devastated by the illness of their only child Jo, a beautiful young girl with cerebral palsy. Unable to move, speak or do anything by herself, Jo needs constant care and her disability has affected the daily life of the young couple who fights constantly with many problems, renouncing to every moment of happiness or diversion. The complicity between Sheila and Brian is fading after few years; while the woman loves deeply and without any doubts her daughter, the man asks himself some relevant questions, like if it’s right or wrong to persist in therapies and to take Joe shelter every time she gets sick, so many, so often. Brian loves his daughter but he realizes that her vegetable life is more like a non existence, and she’s tearing apart even her parents’ one and their marriage. Sheila can’t accept to let the child just die, she’s “her life” and can’t live without her. The situation is worsened by some family friends, Freddie and Pam, and by Brian’s mother Grace, a selfish, punctual woman that has always the right thing to say or suggest. One night, overwhelmed by the situation, Brian brings unnoticed the girl in the garden and leaves her there exposed to the chilly air for a while; hoping for a final remedy: a cold could get her life for good. But Jo brought to the hospital in time, survives. Once back home with Jo recovered, Sheila promises Brian a week vacation every year, just the two of them. But it’s too late, even to make love to him. With the excuse to be late for work, Brian flees away leaving them forever.
Adapted by Peter Nichols from his award winning play, A day in the death of Jo Egg is a shocking actors’ tour de force and shows Medak’s skilful ability to direct them. A play could become a stagey and talky film, but Medak brilliantly avoids these problems with his surreal touch and few external set ups to make this a true cinematic experience. Even if heavy relying on dialogues, the film is never boring, due to Nichols smart characters and their darkly humorous remarks. The approach to this bleak tale is original, innovative and provocative at the same time. It’s easy to fail and deliver the usual tearjerker when such matter is faced, but Nichols and Medak avoid this with an unusual employ of comedy with which Brian and Sheila seem to have found the right balance to go on and live. It’s a trick to mask all their problems and mutual dissatisfaction: a way to keep a marriage together when a terrible event occurs, one that could wreck even the most satisfying and well managed union. These darkly funny situations don’t make things easier for the viewers, on the contrary the counter opposition between the sight of the salivating, inarticulate mumbling girl and the parents’ joking with her, as if she was perfectly normal, render a feel of discomfort and the whole experience unbearable. This is a very sad story in which to take side with one part or another is almost impossible. The balance between the parents’ reasons is perfectly achieved and executed; we can comprehend Sheila’s affection and love for her own child, and we can sympathize with Brian and his needs to have a better life for all of them; for Jo first of all, because she can’t even understand which is the meaning of it.
The movie asks so many questions very hard to answer, and it is nowadays as relevant as it was at the time of its release in 1972. According to some sources the film was produced and filmed in 1970 (copyright at the end credits 1970), but shelved for two years, because the producers wanted to wait the launch of Suzman’s career since she was starring in the big budgeted Nicholas and Alexandra. I believe they really didn’t know what to do with the movie and how to market it, this was a tough sale for sure. Bates and Suzman are both excellent making the audience part of their drama and involving it with complicity and a sexy chemistry that make the couple likeable and close to everybody’s daily life. The feelings towards them grow stronger in the film as we realize that even love sometimes can’t overcame struggles and different point of view. Brian’s escape at the end is a supreme act of love, maybe pushed by a selfish desire of freedom, but first of all done because he understands that their way of life can only lead to mutual self destruction.
Available now in US as part of Columbia Classics By Request (DVD-R), and UK in a properly pressed edition in the collection Classic British, the one reviewed here. The movie has been re-mastered from the original materials and looks excellent, with the cinematography not being one of the strongest aspect of the film, serving the story without to embellish it. Mono audio in English is strong. No extras of any kind. AR 1.33 4/3 (note: on the Columbia site in US, the US edition is stated to be 1.66:1); I didn’t notice any missing part in the composition of the frame, I suspect the movie to have been shot full frame and then matted for theatrical release.
Peter Medak is an interesting artist whose work includes excellent movies like: The ruling class, The Changeling, The Krays, Romeo is bleeding. Recently he has worked mostly shooting TV series episodes (The Wire, Masters of horror, Law and Order etc) as he always did even during his most successful years (Space 1999, Hart to Hart) .
I strongly recommend to watch the above mentioned titles as well as the one reviewed here; an exceptional career stained only by one misfire work the unwatchable Species II, probably done for commercial reasons and because for classy directors is more and more difficult to work in Hollywood at the present day.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace