The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: “Rediscovering a Hidden Handmade Gem”

Belfast-born Brian Moore’s novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne was published in 1955 after his relocation to Canada. The sympathetic, yet deeply unflinching study of a lonely middle-aged spinster succumbing to alcoholism, a loss of faith and a mental breakdown was not an easy sell; it was rejected by no less than ten American publishers before it was finally published in Britain. It proved to be the break that Moore needed, and he would go on to not only be short-listed three times for the Booker Prize, but also regarded as a major figure in late twentieth century English literature, with no less a figure than Graham Greene singling him out as his “favourite living novelist”The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne remains one of his most highly regarded works. It comes as no surprise that a film adaptation of the book was mooted more or less immediately after its publication (John Huston envisaged it as a vehicle for Katherine Hepburn, whilst Irving Kershner subsequently optioned it for Deborah Kerr) but what is perhaps surprising is the fact that it took some thirty-two-years for this cinematic ambition to be realised. I’m glad it did though, because it’s really good.

Step forward Jack Clayton, the man who eventually brought the book to the screen in 1987. Despite a relatively small body of directorial work, Clayton remains one of the most remarkable figures in British cinema. He once claimed that he “never made a film he didn’t want to make”, but it’s fair to say that there were a good deal of films that he did want to make and that sadly, and for numerous reasons, never came to fruition; he harboured ambitions to helm projects that would go on to become Casualties of War and The Bourne Identity, as well as a much cherished biopic of the Greek arms dealer and industrialist, Basil Zaharoff, which he tried to get off the ground no less than three times in 1969, ’78 and ’90. He also famously passed on such films as They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, The Tenant and Alien, making him one of cinema history’s greatest ‘what might have beens?’.

Clayton began his career behind the cameras at the age fourteen in 1935 when he joined Alexander Korda’s Denham Film Studios to work as a tea boy, and quickly rose through the ranks to assistant director and film editor. His first full-length feature film came in 1959, an adaptation of John Braine’s ‘Angry Young Man’ novel Room at the Top starring Laurence Harvey. A huge hit, Clayton followed this up with another adaptation, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which he filmed as The Innocents in 1961 with the aforementioned Deborah Kerr. He directed two more films in the 1960s, The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother’s House, both interesting projects but the latter proved to be his first commercial flop. He didn’t make another film for seven years (1974’s The Great Gatsby) and with good reason: he had earned himself the label of being ‘difficult’. It all started in 1968 when Clayton had been attached to direct an adaptation of John Le Carre’s George Smiley novel, The Looking Glass War. Citing studio interference and a lack of funding from Columbia Pictures, Clayton walked, thus sealing his reputation. But it was an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for Disney in 1983 that proved to be the biggest headache of Clayton’s career. Finding his original, faithful vision of a dark and supernatural thriller compromised by Disney’s desire for a more family-friendly production, Clayton (who had only just recovered from the effects of a debilitating stroke he suffered in 1977) was increasingly sidelined and forced to stand by and watch his film become changed beyond all recognition in post production, before receiving a barrage of brickbats upon its release. Given such a bad experience with meddlesome executives, it must have come as a surprise to see Clayton finally helm The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne for Handmade Films, where George Harrison’s partner Denis O’Brien was well known for his interfering ways. Somewhat surprisingly, their relationship more or less went off without a hitch (well, providing you don’t count Clayton threatening to kill O’Brien one day!) No, the real problems were to come later during its distribution.

Having signed a three-picture deal with Handmade, Bob Hoskins chose Clayton’s film as his next project after Mona Lisa, and found himself starring opposite Maggie Smith in a title role that proved to be her third and final film for Handmade. Our two lonely leads meet over the breakfast table at the Dublin boarding house run by Madden’s sister Mrs Rice (Marie Kean) that Smith’s down-in-society Hearne finds herself a resident of now that her aunt and guardian (Wendy Hiller) has passed away. Captivated by this Americanized Irishman’s tales of New York, Hearne decides to set her cap at him – but is Madden’s seeming interest in her more financially minded? Heartbreak is destined to follow and the secrets of Judith Hearne’s unfulfilled life come spilling out.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a remarkable movie and a perfectly, carefully crafted adaptation from a director who once described himself as an “ex-Catholic”. Religion, or more specifically religious doubt, is an important theme both in the story itself and for the author Brian Moore, of whom it is said he left Ireland precisely because of its obsession with religion. Clayton delivers a film that is a great example of the oppressive nature of faith and the fear of losing it and, despite relocating the action from Belfast to Dublin, Judith Hearne’s prejudiced and pious nature says much about a certain kind of supposedly genteel, God-fearing upbringing that could be found anywhere in Ireland’s recent past. This is a story about two people who have missed the boat in life, each coming to terms with the notion of either settling for second best or facing the twilight of their years alone. Given the themes explored, it’s perhaps understandable that some audiences found the film too bleak for their tastes (Village Voice rather shamefully described it as “The Feel-Bad movie of 1987, just in time for the suicide season”) but its in the film’s uncompromising nature that lies its greatest strength. There’s a deliciously baroque streak that runs through it too; a blackly comic study of alienation that teeters on the downright strange and peculiar. This is perhaps best exemplified in the flesh-crawling supporting turn of Ian McNeice as Mrs Rice’s feckless, overweight son; a sinister, wet-lipped fallen cherub of a man(child) who is conducting both an illicit affair with his mother’s skivvy (Rudi Davies, whom viewers of a certain age may recall from Grange Hill, though she’s arguably best known for being the daughter of writers Beryl Bainbridge and Alan Sharp, and the wife of fellow actor Mick Ford) and a Machiavellian ploy whose petulant aim is the downfall of both his uncle and Judith. Goodness, or at the very least a sense of duty in people, is represented by Prunella Scales as Judith’s friend, Moira O’Neill – a woman who welcomes Judith into her family home each Sunday and is reminiscent therefore of the James Joyce short story Clay, from Dubliners, which relates a similar experience of routine comfort and embarrassment for a visiting old maid.

The film belongs to Maggie Smith. In this superlative performance, she elicits from the audience a powerful empathy for her tragic heroine as she rails from a crisis of faith, a battle with the bottle and a descent into mental illness. It was a performance that rightly earned her a Bafta in 1988. I’m a big admirer of Bob Hoskins and it’s a joy to discover a hitherto unseen-by-me performance of his from his 1980s peak. As the puffed-up and proud James Madden, Hoskins delivers but is both generous and skillful enough to ensure that the spotlight always remains on Maggie Smith. He has come in for some criticism for his performance regarding his American accent in particular, but I don’t really see the problem – though I may be a little biased – as he’s not supposed to be a proper ‘Yank’ anyway. No, my only problem with Hoskins’ part in this is his character’s sexual assault upon Rudi Davies and how the film and its narrative ultimately skips over it as if it were nothing. It’s therefore impossible to side with  or feel for the character after it has occurred and its overall a sour, undeveloped note in an otherwise strong film.

So why has this film become so overlooked? Well, it was indeed distribution that killed The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. In 1988, Handmade started legal action against Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ Cannon Films for over a million pounds in back payments for the video rights to several Handmade productions. Unfortunately for Handmade, Canon was then the UK’s largest cinema chain and they failed to predict what their litigation might incur. In protest, the self-styled ‘Go-Go Boys’ immediately banned all Handmade films from their screens, leaving The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne as on the shelf as its central character. When it eventually arrived in British cinemas in 1989, two years after its US release, it garnered very favourable reviews but it could not find a life beyond an all too short run and it promptly disappeared. A disappointed Clayton predicted that he would never make another film again: a premonition that sadly came true for, although he made Memento Mori for the BBC in 1992, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne did indeed prove to be his last film for cinemas. Remastered with a brand new 2K restoration and released to Blu-ray for the very first time this week by the Indicator label, this is a great chance for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to be rediscovered.


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