Girl With Green Eyes
When we think of Woodfall films we invariably think of the drama genre, unique to the British film industry, known as ‘kitchen sink’. After all, it was a genre they had certainly made their name off the back of, with an impressive track record straight from the traps; Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. However, just four years into its life, Woodfall took a gamble with founding fathers Tony Richardson and John Osborne’s adaptation of Tom Jones, an 18th century novel by Henry Fielding. It was a gamble that paid off both critically and commercially and the box office smash was soon nominated for ten Oscars, winning four. Hollywood money began to be pumped into the British Film Industry ensuring that the 1960s was the decade that England swung like a pendulum. Flush with their success, Woodfall began to look beyond the kitchen sink of Northern working class homes and their gaze alighted upon Ireland.
The Lonely Girl was the second novel in what was to become the controversial and progressive Irish author Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Country Girls Trilogy‘ which had all started with her 1960 debut novel The Country Girls, which had received the Kingsley Amis Award as well as condemnation from the Irish censor who banned the book and the Catholic church who even took to burning copies of it. Woodfall tasked O’Brien with adapting her novel into a screenplay and, with Woodfall camera operator Desmond Davis securing his directorial debut and their star from A Taste of Honey in the lead role, Tom Jones was swiftly followed up by Girl With Green Eyes.
Tushingham stars as Kate Brady, a former convent school girl who, together with her friend Baba Brennan (Lynn Redgrave) leaves her family home in rural Ireland for the big city life of Dublin. Their they face the usual travails of the late teenager; working dull jobs during the day to have enough money to go out dancing of an evening. In nature, Kate is shy and traditionally romantic, a gawky and less self assured figure to Baba’s gregarious, happy go lucky character and, in casting the petite, wide eyed Tushingham opposite the big boned, cheery Redgrave, Woodfall strike gold in creating a very believable friendship. Davis delights in capturing them both before his camera, highlighting their individual and distinctive – though not necessarily traditional – beauty (remember that Tushingham shot to fame with A Taste of Honey after answering Woodfall’s advert for an ‘ugly girl’ – her own brother encouraging her with the comment “Go on Rita, you’re ugly enough”, whilst Redgrave would go on to find fame as the Plain Jane heroine of that kitchen sink classic Georgy Girl). There’s plenty of shots of Tushingham isolated and daydreaming that suggest her character’s more sensitive, poetic temperament (indeed there’s one of her in a headscarf standing in the pouring rain outside a Dublin bookshop that looks like a lost single cover for The Smiths and is arguably a moment that sums up my spirit animal) and it is this stillness that is often broken by Redgrave’s towering, giggling and gallomping intrusions.
The plot itself naturally hinges upon a love affair, a literal ‘brief encounter’ between the sheltered young Kate and a sophisticated older man, the novelist Eugene Gaillard; played here with a heavy dose of urbane ennui by Peter Finch. What initially starts as a modest friendship soon turns to romance with an uncharacteristic play made on Kate’s part. But their happiness is short-lived as, initially unbeknownst to Kate, Gaillard is actually a married man and a father, estranged from his wife and child who are in the US and seeking to make their estrangement permanent with a divorce and a fresh start. Naturally this revelation comes as a surprise to all, but none more so than Kate’s devoutly Catholic family who, aghast at the thought that she is committing the mortal sin of adultery, seek to break up their relationship, return her home and instill the rigid disciplines of the Church and her childhood upbringing into Kate once more.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given this being set in Ireland some fifty odd years ago it is of course religion that proves the thorny issue between Kate and Gaillard; she keeps her faith, whereas Gaillard is incapable of seeing the Church as anything other than a comfort to the small minded and conservative and he is at a frustrated loss to see the lively young girl he fell for submit to Mass each week. Despite being together, they find themselves increasingly apart and representative of the two very different worlds they each hail from and perhaps ultimately to. Love, it seems, is simply not enough and the age-gap is perhaps too wide after all. It’s a familiar romantic story, but it is handled with sensitivity and a humour that makes it seem fresh, despite never reaching the same heights of Woodfall’s great successes, such as A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Entertainer or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to see it get the opportunity of finding a new audience thanks to the BFI’s Woodfall boxset here and who knows, in a world that fell for the charms of the similarly old fashioned Brooklyn, it may strike a chord with some and find a new appreciation too. Indeed, if someone were to finally adapt the other stories in ‘The Country Girls Trilogy’ (Davis himself returned to direct an adaptation of the first novel, The Country Girls in 1984, having previously reunited with Tushingham and Redgrave for the Carnaby Street romp Smashing Time in 1967) they’d be wise to cast Saoirse Ronan as Kate.