The BFI release of Tony Garnett’s realistic look at the notorious profession is reviewed by clydefro
The directorial debut of Tony Garnett, Prostitute is a grim but brave exploration of the individuals involved in England’s version of that oldest of professions. It’s not really a look at the practice of prostitution in itself or a consideration of the potential rights and wrongs therein. Instead, it seems to, in a reasonably wide-ranging manner, look at the difficulties these women were facing, both within and beyond the confines of the law. The film is generally neutral but may seem to lean in the direction of its subject matter. It’s at least sympathetic to their plight, if unafraid to portray them in a seemingly naturalistic manner. Indeed, part of the appeal of Prostitute is that it acts as a heavily deglamorized, unsexy crash course into an environment that remains rarely seen to most of us, and it does this with a semi-documentary eye.
The parallel stories that dominate the film concern a pair of women who share the same flat. Louise (Kate Crutchley) is a Social Services worker who only learned that flatmate Sandra (Eleanor Forsythe) was a prostitute weeks after having lived with her. Sandra desires to get off the street and earn more money so she takes off for London, where she contacts a recent acquaintance and gets a job working for a demanding massage agency madame. More than once while following Sandra, writer/director Garnett shows his sense of humor. The best of these perhaps shouldn’t be spoiled but involves a Mr. Hanson. Garnett injects more depressing elements into Sandra’s time in London also, as she encounters a brutal and abusive cop who bullies his way into her flat. Police treatment of prostitutes is a point of emphasis in the film, with this instance preceded earlier by the picture’s opening where Rose (Nancy Samuels) is picked up from the side of the road when she’s not even working. These women have little defense and are pretty much at the mercy of law enforcement. In Rose’s case, she receives a harsh sentence that puts her in prison.
As an educated, smart, and socially-conscious woman, Louise acts to contrast those whose profession is in the title of Prostitute. She’s gained sympathy for prostitutes by befriending Sandra. Louise takes an interest in their situation and, after Rose’s arrest, endeavors to help them understand their legal rights in advance of potential run-ins with the police. She sets up regular meetings, which later lead to media interest from BBC2, and even attends a conference on the penal code. Garnett here inserts a male character, a lecturer on sociology, who meets Louise while in town and quickly ends up in her bed. The implication, and this is raised by one of the women earlier, seems to be something of a reminder that a woman can take home a man she’s just met for sex without interference so long as she’s not soliciting the service for money. And is it really that different? The way Garnett presents this is laudably subtle.
There are so many ways to either go wrong or reinforce what’s already out there when making a movie like Prostitute. That it proves to be rather captivating and multi-layered without becoming exploitative is almost a surprise. Ground level stories punctuated by Sandra’s experience are met by sociological facts and figures and, most importantly, potentially fresh ways of viewing a significant (and unsolved) issue. The film is generally not a homework assignment, and this social consideration is kept well off to the side while still obviously nagging away as Garnett, who’d been a producer on several of Ken Loach’s films previous, probably intended. People are the focus of Prostitute. It lifts the veil with determination (and, at one point of oil-infused ickiness/pleasuring, explicitly) by latching onto those who roughly ply their trade either, depending on one’s opinion, for the good or to the detriment of society.
It seemed at one point that Prostitute would be joining the BFI’s Flipside series but that didn’t happen, leaving it to finally now be released in a DVD-only edition. The PAL disc is R2 and dual-layered.
Grain is prominent in the progressive transfer, owing to the film being shot in 16mm. It uses the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, identified in the booklet as being open matte from 1.85:1. The technical information there further states that the original 16mm Interpositive was used to transfer the film in high definition, with the film’s editor Bill Shapter supervising. Detail comes through as kind of soft and even gritty overall. DVD is probably not the most attractive method of presenting a movie that was filmed in 16mm so the inherent limitations to the picture quality are significant. No damage to worry about, at least, as just a few stray speckles exist.
Audio is a suitably modest English mono track divided between two channels. It was transferred from the original magnetic tracks. Dialogue comes through in a reasonably clean manner. Optional English for the hearing impaired subtitles are offered. They are white in color.
There’s just one additional item on the disc to supplement the feature but it’s a significant extra. “Taking a Part” (44:34) consists mostly of testimonials from a few rather young women who are or have been prostitutes. One is 19 and has a small child and another has met an Indian man who gives her and her family money. Some of the accounts are read by the women, which is slightly unwieldy, but the piece as a whole seems to work fine, putting a human face on the profession.
Also included is a 28-page booklet found inside the DVD case. It begins with a lengthy essay of six pages written by Russell Campbell that is centered around Garnett’s film and its reception. There’s also a short two-page recollection by Tony Garnett on the movie and a biographical write-up for the director later on that lasts five pages. Documents relating to censorship issues then comprise a pair of pages. The short film “Taking a Part” is reflected upon by its creator Jan Worth for two more pages. Images and credits make up the remainder of the booklet.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum