Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: Girl with Green Eyes Review
Kate Brady (Rita Tushingham) was brought up in a village in rural Ireland, but is now living in Dublin with her best friend from convent school and now roommate, Baba Brennan (Lynn Redgrave). Kate works in a grocer's while Baba is in secretarial college. Although they are close friends, they are different. Baba is the more extrovert and garrulous of the two, keen to go out in the evenings to meet men. Kate is shyer but also more romantically inclined. Then Kate meets Eugene Gaillard (Peter Finch), a middle-aged writer...
If 1959 to 1965 was Woodfall's golden period, then of the eight films in this box set, Girl With Green Eyes is the least known and least shown. Following the popular success and the award wins of Tom Jones, it no doubt seemed rather minor key and lacking some of the controversial issues (in the UK anyway) that had marked out the company's earlier films. The original novel may have been scandalous in its own country, but in terms of subject matter it now seemed mild, although still restricted to adults by the British censor. It also has female lead roles, so may have been thought of as a “women's film” - more so than A Taste of Honey. That's certainly unfair, as it's a fine film in its own right, and what might seem low-key and character-led and bittersweet is actually its strength. As with the previous more-or-less-contemporary-set Woodfall films, an eye for realism, which at the time meant black and white realism, didn't preclude moments of lyricism.
The film is based on the middle volume of Edna O'Brien's trilogy about Kate and Baba, The Lonely Girl, published in 1962, two years after The Country Girls and two years before Girls in Their Married Bliss. These were the first novels published by O'Brien (born 1930 and still with us as I write this). After working in London as a publisher's reader, she was commissioned to write her first novel. Dealing with the lives of its two young women, and not shying away from their sexual experiences, The Country Girls and its sequels caused a scandal in Ireland. The books were banned, in some cases burned, and condemned from pulpits across the land.
Woodfall brought the rights to The Lonely Girl and Edna O'Brien wrote the screenplay. The novel is written in the first person, but O'Brien dispenses with that, leaving only Kate's voiceovers at the beginning and end. Clearly the word 'lonely' in the novel's title didn't promise big box office, so Girl With Green Eyes it became, adding to the shortish list of black and white films with colourful titles. The late Eric Rohmer had a rule when making a black and white film that there would be no verbal references to colour in it other than black, white and grey, so if someone had a drink it would be water or vodka rather than crème de menthe, say. Rohmer may have stuck to this rule, but it's surprising how many films don't. This one certainly doesn't, not least because of its title. This also leads to a scene where Eugene asks which of Kate and Baba has blue eyes and which green, though unless he's colour blind he would be able to see for himself. (Tushingham's eyes are actually blue in real life.)
Tony Richardson had other commitments, especially in the wake of the success of Tom Jones, but he was keen that his company would still have films in the pipeline. So he promoted others from the ranks. Desmond Davis had been Walter Lassally's camera operator on A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones, and he now became a director, his first such credit other than a television play, Men Without Shadows, broadcast on ITV in 1957 and now lost. Manny Wynn, who had been the focus puller on the first two films and had shot second-unit on Tom Jones, became director of photography. Brian Smedley-Aston, who had been assistant editor on Loneliness and Tom Jones, now became the main editor.
Davis cast Rita Tushingham in the title role, having worked with her on A Taste of Honey. Lynn Redgrave had had a small role in Tom Jones and her own breakthrough film, Georgy Girl, was two years away, but if you didn't know that she and Tushingham were friends you can't miss the chemistry between them on screen. You can see it in their bantering, Kate calling Baba “lanky” and “beanpole”, given that Redgrave is noticeably six inches taller than Tushingham (and an inch taller than Peter Finch, come to that). Maybe this was improvised when it was shot? Davis cast Peter Finch, who gets top billing. That was something of a coup as Finch, then in his late forties, was a big name. As was now usual for Woodfall, the film was shot entirely on location, almost all of it in Ireland with some brief scenes in London. Girl With Green Eyes has a Liverpudlian and a Londoner playing Irishwomen, and an Australian playing an Englishman, but the supporting cast is mostly made up of several well-known Irish actors of the day, Maire Kean, Arthur O'Sullivan, T.P. McKenna and David Kelly among them.
Finch was twenty-six years older than Tushingham, noticeably so, which gives their romance an unavoidable May/December vibe, a trope that's hard to escape from many films even now. Yet given the different social climate of the time – an Ireland much more dominated by the Church and an England at the dawn of its permissive society - it rings true. It's a romance that's bedevilled not just by the age gap, and the fact that Eugene is married (though separated) with a daughter, but by their difference in social standing. On one side, there are Kate's family and fellow villagers back home who are outraged that she is seeing a married man, and one not yet divorced (which is “worse than murder” anyway). On the other, there are Eugene's upmarket friends rather inclined to patronise a “little fawn from the bogs” as one calls Kate. Ultimately, despite Finch's top billing, and the fact that Baba is a supporting character with most of her screen time in the first half, the film is not so much a romance. That's undoubtedly the motor for the story, but what Girl With Green Eyes really is, is a story of a female friendship. It begins as one and ends as one too.
Girl With Green Eyes opened on 14 May 1964 at the Leicester Square Theatre (later the Odeon West End, and now no more). Facing it across Leicester Square, at the Empire (now the Cineworld), was the work of former Woodfallers Karel Reisz and Albert Finney, a poorly-received version of Emlyn Williams's stage success Night Must Fall, previously filmed in 1937. Not far away, Tom Jones was still playing at the London Pavilion, having opened there eleven months earlier. Girl With Green Eyes did respectable business, including as an arthouse release in the USA, and attracted generally good notices, but then and rather since, it has tended to be overshadowed by that film, Woodfall's previous, and its next but one, the final film in this box set, The Knack.
Girl With Green Eyes received BAFTA nominations for Rita Tushingham as Best British Actress and for Lynn Redgrave as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, losing to Audrey Hepburn in Charade and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins respectively. In the USA, it won a Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film.
Girl With Green Eyes is Disc Eight of the BFI's Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema box set, available in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. A checkdisc of the former was received for review. To read the reviews of the other films in this set, click on the tags below. The disc is encoded for Region B only. The box set carries a 15 certificate. Girl With Green Eyes was cut by the BBFC for a X certificate on its release. It's not known if whatever was cut remains in the film, but when it was submitted on video in 1990 and again in 2018 for the present release, its “mild bad language, sex, sex references, violence” were containable within the bounds of a PG certificate. Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh and The Peaches were passed in 2018 at U and PG respectively.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, derived from a 4K scan of the original negative. The results are very good: sharp (when the original material is clearly meant to be sharp) and detailed, with the greyscale and contrast seeming true.
The sound is the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0, with the dialogue, sound effects and John Addison's score clear and well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature only. There are no issues with them, though Baba's “nicks” (at 13:38) should probably be “knicks” (as in knickers).
The extras begin with a new commentary by Adrian Martin. He is a great admirer of the film, which he thinks is unfairly neglected. He concentrates a lot on Edna O'Brien's adaptation of her own novel, pointing up places where the screenplay condenses parts of the book – which was certainly more sexually explicit than would have been allowed on screen, even with a X certificate. We're still at a time when films were more likely to indicate that their characters had had sex than to show them doing it, which this film does do discreetly. Martin pays attention to the way the film is structured, as an eight-acter, each act of ten to fifteen minutes each. He also draws attention to Davis's directorial eye, and the lyricism of many of the scenes. Well worth listening to.
Next is the second part of a new interview with Rita Tushingham (7:39), specifically about Girl With Green Eyes. She and “Lynnie”, whom she clearly remembers fondly, stayed in Dublin for a month before shooting began, mainly to practise their Irish accents. While they were there, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, visited the city and Tushingham and Redgrave watched from their hotel room. Tushingham also speaks well of Desmond Davis, with whom she and Redgrave and Manny Wynn reunited in 1967 to make Smashing Time, a very of-its-moment Swinging London comedy that hasn't worn well with time and has never been on video or DVD in the UK.
“Film Poetry” (24:17) is a new interview with Desmond Davis, who is still with us, aged ninety-two as I write this. The first half of this is a career overview, Davis having been introduced to cinematography during his war service as a cameraman – a dangerous job during a battle when you could only see what was in your viewfinder. After being demobbed, Davis entered the film industry as a clapper boy, before becoming a focus puller (a job he disliked) and then a camera operator. He has a lot of memories of making The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart being a much shorter man than he appeared on screen, and John Huston being noticeably larger than life. After Girl With Green Eyes, he continued in his career as a director for thirty years, returning to Edna O'Brien with a 1984 television adaptation of The Country Girls, for which O'Brien also wrote the screenplay.
Two short films are next. Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh (29:36) – and yes, that's how it's spelled onscreen – dates from 1959. It's a decidedly odd film, the only one made (as director and lead) by Elizabeth Russell, then a student at the Chelsea School of Art, in partnership with fellow student Nicholas Ferguson, who is also in the cast. They were briefly partners offscreen as well, though that ended when Ferguson came out as gay. In the credits you'll find the names of two future directors, Jack Gold and Michael Tuchner, here editor and sound editor – or rather you'll hear them, as other than the title card all the credits are spoken. The film was made over two years on a budget of £100, a quarter of that being a grant from the BFI Experimental Film Fund. It was shot in 16mm with no direct sound – even when there is dialogue, there's little attempt at lipsynch. The result, influenced by Buñuel and Cocteau, is a series of surreal gags, with a slender plot concerning the ups and downs of the love between and the marriage of Russell and Ferguson's characters. Along the way, we have a picture of a Chelsea in the later 1950s, all coffee bars and Teddy Boys, a long way from swinging. Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz admired the film and showed extracts from it in the sixth and final Free Cinema programme at the National Film Theatre in March 1959. This short is presented in 1.37:1, which is undoubtedly correct.
The Peaches (16:17) dates from 1964. It was directed by Michael Gill, whose career up to then had been in television documentaries, from a script by Yvonne Gilan, who was his wife. Making an appearance as a young bespectacled chess player is the couple's son, Adrian, later the writer A. A. Gill. Narrated by Peter Ustinov, it's the surreal tale of a Very Beautiful Girl (Juliet Harmer, two years away from her role in Adam Adamant Lives!) and her passion for peaches. Walter Lassally was the cinematographer, in black and white 35mm. This short is presented in 1.37:1, but as this was a film which was given a cinema release (with a BBFC A certificate) it may well be intended to be shown wider, though by eye unlikely to be wider than 1.66:1.
Also on the disc are the trailer for Girl With Green Eyes (2:32) and a self-navigating stills gallery (4:18). The latter includes the original green-tinted-monochrome British poster and a striking Polish one.
The BFI's book with this box set includes an essay by Melanie Williams, who sees the film as more of a study of female friendship and an examination of the experiences of young women as the Permissive Society dawned, rather than the bittersweet May/December romance it looks like at first glance. There's less about the film's production than there is a discussion of its themes. It's not the most spoilable of films, but it's best to read this essay after seeing it. The book also has notes on and credits for the extras, with Katy McGahan talking about the two short films on the disc.