Temporarily gone but most certainly not forgotten, J. Lee Thompson’s compelling kitchen sink drama Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) made its way back into UK cinemas this July courtesy of a StudioCanal re-mastered rerelease. Consigned to jaded memory for far too long, this bedraggled partner piece to David Lean’s 1945 tale of unrequited love Brief Encounter now makes its way onto DVD, giving home audiences the opportunity to sample a hugely underrated near-classic of post-war British cinema.
The sublime Yvonne Mitchell plays downtrodden housewife Amy, a conceded scatter-brain with the very best of intentions. Waiting hand and foot upon her quiet, reserved husband Jim (Thompson regular Anthony Quayle) and her strong-minded son, Amy muddles her way through from dawn to dusk in a melee of burnt meals and piled-up ironing. Yet unbeknownst to our fragile heroine, Jim’s ongoing affair with his beautiful secretary Georgie (Sylvia Syms) is about to threaten the very foundations of her domesticated existence.
Mitchell plays the unhinged housewife card superbly, yet there is far more to Amy than initially meets the eye. Despite her apparent naivety, our protagonist is fiercely loyal and protective over her ‘two boys’, and is correctly labelled a ‘martyr’ by her own son at one point during the film. Regardless of her error-strewn daily routine, Amy is first and foremost the linchpin of this particular family unit, and the shocking revelation of Jimbo’s affair rightly threatens not only the house dynamic, but also Amy’s mental state.
Quayle is similarly impressive as the key adulterer, playing the role with the kind of poise and subtlety rarely called upon for such a character. Jim is far removed from you’re average play-away husband (if we can even describe him so), and seems genuinely determined to start a new life with Georgie, out of love rather than lust. Throughout Woman in a Dressing Gown, Thompson’s carefully considered camerawork, alongside writer Ted Willis’ engrossing script, refuse to point the finger of blame at any one party. Willis himself has stated that the film simply depicts, “good honest fumbling people caught up in tiny tragedies”.
As with Lean’s Brief Encounter, a quiet ‘tiny tragedy’ is just what Thompson provides. Melodramatic over-exaggeration is replaced with quiet stoicism and self-deprecation, as each character questions whether it is in fact themselves who are to blame for their family’s impending disintegration. As the final shots of Woman in a Dressing Gown play out, optimists may argue that there is cause to believe the British family can endure. For pessimists, the message may simply be that happiness is an unattainable luxury in the modern age.