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The 1973 Film Version of The Homecoming

April 4, 2016

homecoming

This film is a very close approximation of the first 1965 stage productions.

Since this is (just about) a film rather than a play, we get to see a bit more of the house (but not much more).  We also get to see a taxi pull up outside the house, and Ruth walk about a bit in the immediate vicinity of the house.

The film contains most of the original stage cast, but with the effective substitutions of Michael Jayston (Teddy) for Michael Bryant and the great, the very great Cyril Cusack (Sam) for John Normington.  Cusack plays Sam as a small, delicate and neat man.  His sexuality might be questionable (and questioned), but Cusack is too wise an actor to try to make suppressed sexual identity the “key” to the character.  Indeed, if any actor playing a part in a Pinter play feels that they have uncovered some great secret that makes perfect sense of their character (and/or the play as a whole) then that actor has been very much been barking up the wrong tree.

The genius of the play is that Sam is a kind of suicide bomber – carrying an explosive secret that will destroy the whole family (while destroying himself in the process).  But when he pulls the pin on the grenade of Jesse’s infidelity, it is soon clear that “facts” and “truths” are irrelevant.  His big secret is ignored, because language is not the repository of truth, but only of power.

Paul Rogers recreates on film the extraordinary contradiction that is Max.  Max is the sort of character who can contradict himself twelve times in one sentence and not notice or care.  He’s like Donald Trump in that respect. Cringing, bullying Max has all the terrifying sentimentality of a Mob boss with none of the respect or power.  Rogers does not quite look seventy, even eight years after his first performance of the role.   But then Max’s age is quite paradoxical.  “I’m not an old man!” he bellows at the end and Rogers’ communicated the extent to which Max is variously weak and strong, hale hearty and wheezy and pathetic by turns.  If Max raises his stick to you – he might fall over – or he might not.

Michael Bryant is chilling.  Pinter himself, in a rare moment of overt moral judgment, suggested that Teddy is the real villain of the piece.  The calm acceptance with which Bryant’s Teddy leaves his wife in this house of peculiar horrors suggests the possibility that the entire “Homecoming” was nothing more than a strategy on Teddy’s part to dump his own wife.

Ian Holm is superb, of course, and demonstrates why he was always one of Pinter’s favourite actors.  Holm’s Lenny is someone who always knows how to misdirect – and unlike his father – contradicts himself with some seeming strategy in mind.  He is a rare character who appears to be able to command language rather than be imprisoned by it.

Terence Rigby is hilarious as the strange rough beast Joey.  Perhaps the eight years that have passed since his first performance of the role make his appearance as a young, up and coming boxer seem slightly less credible, but this is a small price to pay for preserving as much of the original cast as possible.  A man who can talk only very slowly and with considerable apparent difficulty, Rigby’s Joey achieves a degree of strange poetry on occasion:

“I’ve been the whole hog plenty of times. Sometimes… you can be happy… and not go the whole hog. Now and again… you can be happy… without going any hog.”

He is monster and baby at one and the same time.  Ruth becomes a second mother to him – and like some mothers – she’s a tease.  Joey resents having to share this new mother with his siblings.

Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s first wife,  is mesmerising – as she is supposed to be.  One small, quiet woman in a house full of loud men.  And she absolutely rules them.  This is a play in which, more often than not, it is the character who is listening who dominates rather than the character who is talking (or shouting).  To keep silent is to retain power.  Vivien Merchant plays Ruth as someone who constantly carries the suggestion of a smile.  I don’t think she smiles that much, but she smiles with her eyes.  A former nude model (perhaps? – why should we believe Ruth more than any other character) she was a sense of physical control and self possession that eludes any other character.  She wins.

Is it all rather “stagy”?  Yes.  Yes it it – bless it – and it’s the closest that us younguns will ever get to seeing a 1960s production of The Homecoming.  Every moment of this film is precious, because every moment in the play was.  Is.  Not a word is wasted you see.   Not a comma.  Not an intake of breath.

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