Sunday 26 February 2012

A Passionate Woman Review

Plot: This two parts, made for TV film sees Betty, a housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage in Leeds in the 50's, fall for a Polish man that threatens to derail her life and those around her. In part two, we jump thirty years later when the past comes back to haunt Betty's life.

Review: The story of a bored woman trapped in a unhappy marriage, who falls for the charm of a brooding stranger is nothing new, the sort of Madame Bovary material that has been seen countless times, as recently as a few months ago with Terence Davies unsentimental and quietly devastating Deep Blue Sea. So it is a pleasant surprise that A Passionate Woman, a made for TV film that is now getting a DVD release, while threading familiar territory, mostly manages to rise above it.

Indeed a few elements set this apart. First of all, the direction frequently elevates this higher than your usual Sunday night tv drama, which should come as no surprise as the film was co-directed by Antonia Bird. A British director who has mostly worked on tv, her cinematographic outputs have been constantly interesting however, especially the vastly underrated Raveneous, a cannibal period drama dark comedy that demands to be rediscovered.

Here the assured direction adds subtlety and poignancy to the first part. Contributing to the success are the two leads: Billie Pipper as the young Betty in the thralls of an unexpected love, gives a great performance full of restrain and depth. And Theo James (see recently in the Inbetweeners in a very different role!) brings a certain dimension and passion to the part of a brooding foreign lothario which could have easily fallen into the stereotype.

There is also a well observed portrayal of the stiffling environment they both live in, with Craze also suffering from some casual but very real xenophobia.

And so on to the second story, which has the interesting premise of showing what happens thirty years after the illicit liaison came to an abrupt and tragic end, and how the characters all went on with their lives, with a revelation shedding some new light on the events of that time, and threatening to derails the lives of everybody. But sadly, what was supposed to add an extra dimension to a familiar story falters for several reasons.

First of all, a few narrative threads are entertained then abandoned in an unsatisfying way. I am particularly thinking about Betty's son, who, on the eve of his marriage, is tempted into an illicit liaison in the same way his mother was all these years ago. Yet this goes unexplored, which is a shame considering how unlikeable his bride to be is.

And then all the restraint that had been shown in the first part seems to have gone out of the window. It is not the fault of the very talented Sue Johnston as the older Betty but even her is unable to save the far too melodramatic developments, especially a plot device that is a little too convenient.

As for the ending, it ties up everything a little bit too neatly. There are a few interesting issues being handled here still, and I particularly liked the way the film did not offer an easy solution to the dilemma of a woman faced with either an uncertain life of passion or a unhappy but steady marriage. I would recommend it mainly for its very successful first part.

A Passionate Woman is out on DVD in the UK on the 27th of February 2012.

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