July 17, 2007
A Taste of Honey, 1961
In some ways, Tony Richardson's adaptation of Shelagh Delaney debut play, A Taste of Honey anticipates the impassive, world-weary gamin of Robert Bresson's Mouchette in the way it captures the awkward desperation and inarticulate longing of its foundering, working class heroes. In an early episode in the film, an overly made up, harried, middle-aged woman, Helen (Dora Bryan), having just returned home after spending a night out on the town, clandestinely scurries out of a basement apartment with her teen-aged daughter, Jo (Rita Tushingham), carrying only a handful of personal items after being unable to make payment on an overdue rent. The incisive image of the fractured family absconding, not only from responsibility, but from home itself inevitably proves to be a metaphoric reflection of the aimless and transitory nature of their empty existences as well. Leading a disaffected life of reluctant, mutual disregard towards her carping, self-absorbed, and absent mother (and who, in turn, criticizes Jo for her insolence, open hostility, and constant provocation over her fading looks and easy virtue), Jo finds comfort in the eager anticipation of her impending graduation, and in the arms of a lonely, gentle natured merchant seaman named Jimmy (Paul Danquah) passing through town. However, the momentary solace would prove fleeting, and when Jimmy's ship sails away and Helen returns home with the unexpected news that she has made plans to head off for a holiday and marry her newly minted lover, Peter (Robert Stephens), Jo seizes the opportunity to escape her mother's stifling resentment and emotional abandonment and set out on a life of her own. Set against the grimy, industrial town of Manchester in northern England, the film also channels the spirit of Michelangelo Antonioni's metaphoric landscapes in its depiction of adrift, "grey souls" that have been dispirited by poverty, emotional abuse, and marginalization. But more importantly, the strength of the film lies in its sensitive portrayal of social outcasts, from Jo's interracial relationship with Jimmy (a social exposition that also subsequently broaches the issue of racial identification in biracial children when Jo rejects a Caucasian training doll as a surrogate baby), to her unplanned pregnancy, and finally, to her profound friendship with a gay student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin) who offers her (and perhaps, himself) a means of escaping social stigma by proposing marriage.