Woman in a Dressing Gown (J. Lee Thompson, 1957)

September 15, 2012

A hugely affecting and claustrophobic film, the underseen and recently restored Woman in a Dressing Gown is, on a base level, a notable precursor to “kitchen-sink” dramas. Beyond that, however, the probing female insight and melodramatic flourishes in its exploration of relationship deterioration, and the social suppression of women, can be seen to have roots in the works of both Douglas Sirk and Yasujirô Ozu, while also being in line with styles directors like Terence Davies and Rainer Werner Fassbinder would delve into years later.

Anthony Quayle and Yvonne Mitchell play Jim and Amy, a middle-aged married couple. The weary Jim is pursuing a passionate though apparently unconsummated affair with his much younger secretary, Georgie, played by Sylvia Sims. Amy, spending all her homebound time in a well-worn dressing gown, is scatterbrained, untidy and forever cheerful despite the frustrating effects her bouts of dimwittedness have on both Jim and their son Brian (Andrew Ray). Jim’s attempt to walk out on his family comes halfway through the film, and Amy finds herself with an all-too brief window of opportunity to try to convince him their relationship still has something left that’s worth sticking with.

The film’s deft screenplay by Ted Willis is even-handed and refuses to pick sides, making the story even more devastating as investment in the views of both husband and wife is equally resonant; this aspect of the writing also makes what the final outcome will be more difficult to determine than one might expect. All actors involved produce very fine work, especially Mitchell as the both cringe-inducing and heartbreaking Amy.

Both the screenplay and the film’s look complement each other in critiquing the society that creates and sustains the norm of subservient housewives. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor repeatedly frames Mitchell like a caged captive between various furniture arrangements, while the film’s often rapid and impatient shots and edits constantly suggest something trying to break free. Threatened with losing Jim, Amy is noticeably more alive outsides of their flat’s confines, but the series of cosmic failures in her attempts to make herself appealing to him again suggest she is forever stuck in a prison of domesticity she never wanted. As with the film as a whole, that sequence is tragic rather than contrived.


One comment

  1. […] Josh Slater-Williams […]

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