Private Road Review

The second feature from Barney Platts-Mills, starring Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon, also joins the BFI Flipside

The second feature film written and directed by Barney Platts-Mills is, in quite a few ways, a clear companion to his debut Bronco Bullfrog. But whereas Platts-Mills used grittier locations, freeing rock music, non-professional actors and a black and white Academy ratio frame on his initial feature, Private Road changes most all of that. As such, the two pictures are almost a study in contrasts as much as they are comparable. The primary thread of a young man trying to balance the unmagnificence of early adulthood alongside a core group of male friends, a new girlfriend, and some semblance of occupational inertia is familiar to both of Platts-Mills’ films. Private Road opts for a veneer of respectability. Its protagonist Peter (Bruce Robinson) is a promising young writer with connections and the ability to land reasonably well on his feet. He has little of the class-based frustration found in Bronco Bullfrog‘s Del.

Peter soon meets Ann (Susan Penhaligon) who’s working at his literary agent’s office. The two quickly hit it off, as Platts-Mills wastes little time with courtship before deeming them a couple. Ann’s parents (played by Robert Brown and the eternally lovely Kathleen Byron) seem hesitant of this long-haired artistic type their youngest daughter has brought home. This is a tension that reappears over the course of the film but it’s played out believably, with the parents concerned about both Ann’s safety and her happiness. At this point in the movie, Peter is living with a pair of seemingly less motivated friends, Henry (George Fenton) and Stephen (Michael Feast). It’s unclear when he finds time to hone his writing skills, or, for that matter, whether he’s actually very talented. The film relays the assumption that Peter has a bright future, and he’s shown receiving a check for 500 quid for a short story, but there’s little blood or sweat extracted on camera. The potential twist that Peter isn’t as good as he thinks is, something flirted with by the rejection of his novel, would seem to alter the viewer’s perception of the character. Instead of brilliant young mind struggling to have his voice heard, the theme might be closer to slightly above-average writer being forced to cut it in the real world.

It’s impressive that Platts-Mills is able to present his main two characters as more or less unmolded figures who gain the viewer’s sympathy by being ordinary. Peter and Ann move in together and she gets pregnant. You can sense the decline in their relationship but it’s not welcomed. An incident involving Stephen in their flat is rightly uncomfortable and yet the overall humanist tone of the film makes it seem less outrageous than it perhaps could or should. As in Bronco Bullfrog, there’s nothing exceptional or even overly likable about any of these characters. They wander through the familiar difficulties we all face in everyday life. You can, however, feel a safety net present in Private Road that doesn’t exist for those in Bronco Bullfrog. When Peter isn’t getting the money he needs from the literary world, he simply gets a job at his friend Henry’s workplace doing copy writing. It requires wearing a suit and tie but Peter proves to be not above this standard issue uniform, even if his suits are noticeably more fashionable than most.

There’s a scenic digression to the country where Peter and Ann better get to know one another. This is probably my favorite sequence in the film, not only for the beautiful rural photography but also because it provides an opportunity for us to become acquainted with the characters. The funniest bit involves Peter’s attempts to secure meat for the table. When he finally does manage to bag a rabbit, Ann is repulsed at the idea of skinning and cleaning it. Platts-Mills makes a point to never linger on any development. He has no use for bold letters. So, for example, when Peter identifies Ann as his wife at one point, it’s not clear whether they might have indeed been married and Platts-Mills chose not to show it. Such a method tends to add subtext for the viewer to try and figure out amid the action that is emphasized. It’s perhaps a minor trick but one that works particularly well here because of how delicate the subject matter potentially is and the absence of any traditional big plot points.

This patience and attention to character are part of why Private Road resembles the oft-celebrated American movies of the 1970s. It’s neither an endorsement of what is shown nor a condemnation. Simply providing characters for young viewers to relate to in a fair way is as important as anything that happens to them. The ending, too, is utterly noncommittal. With this film and Bronco Bullfrog, it’s clear (again) that Barney Platts-Mills was a highly sophisticated filmmaker whose paltry cinematic output is not only almost inexplicable but also a deprivation of sorts to those who enjoy personal and intimate cinema. The half-full contingent might remind us that two is still quite better than none.

The Disc(s)

Private Road is Flipside spine number 014 in the BFI’s increasingly essential strand of British films from the ’60s and ’70s that have escaped the radar of the mainstream. It follows the same filmmaker’s Bronco Bullfrog, released in the previous wave of Flipside titles. The release is a Dual Format edition, containing both a Blu-ray disc that is not region-locked and a DVD, with identical extras.

The high definition transfer presents the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Director Barney Platts-Mills supervised and approved the new HD master, which was transferred from the original 35mm negative and further restored. There’s really nothing to complain about here. The materials used were clearly in good enough shape that the elves at the BFI were able to produce a terrifically film-like image. Damage is non-existent. The colors are always dead-on accurate and vibrant as necessary. I was especially pleased by how an interior shot of Peter and his pals’ flat looked, with increased grain but still a good amount of detail. An excellent effort on the whole from the BFI.

Audio is an English PCM mono track, transferred from a 35mm print. This is a very clear and clean listen that includes occasional music which is of equal clarity. Volume remains consistent and strong throughout the two-channel track. Dialogue registers without issue. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are optional and white in color.

Two short films are presented as extras, both in HD on the Blu-ray. The first is a documentary done by Barney Platts-Mills in 1967 called “St Christopher” (48:35) that centers around certain methods of educating the mentally handicapped. Its length arguably makes it classifiable as a very short feature. “The Last Chapter” (29:10) offers more of Private Road co-star Susan Penhaligon as she again descends upon a male writer. The circumstances here are very different, with the novelist (played by Denholm Elliot) this time a successful spinner of Bond-like tales of intrigue and Penhaligon cast as a pushy teenager who unexpectedly shifts the author’s perspective. Directed by David Tringham, who also adapted an original short story by John Fowles, it’s an engrossing story that twists neatly. The 1974 short is presented in 1.33:1 and in color, with some marks still visible in the transfer.

The 24-page booklet is, I hesitate to say, not one of the BFI’s more sterling efforts. It leads off with an essay by Kevin Jackson that harbors an interesting view of the film as a satire and seems as intent on pointing out its flaws as celebrating it. Fair is fair and all that, but Private Road could have used a more spirited appreciation. An original review written by Nigel Andrews for a 1971 issue of Sight & Sound occupies a pair of pages. The same biography of Barney Platts-Mills that appeared in the Bronco Bullfrog booklet runs 3 pages and both Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon are given bios of a page apiece. The short films “St Christopher” and “The Last Chapter” receive further background in writings of, respectively, 2 and 4 pages. Cast and production credits, plus the ever-helpful About the transfers section, join some choice stills in finishing off the remainder of the insert.

clydefro jones

Updated: Feb 22, 2011

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