Although not as famous as the likes of The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, many credit Woman In A Dressing Gown as the place where the British Kitchen Sink Drama began. It was exceedingly unusual on its 1957 release for taking the small, personal crisis of a normal family living in a block of flats as its main subject, setting a precedent for a lot of the gritty, working class life movies of the 1960s.
Yvonne Mitchell plays Amy Preston, a housewife who seems happy (at least on the surface) in her life as mother of Brian (Andrew Ray) and wife of Jim (Anthony Quayle), even if the dinner is rarely on the table on time and the flat is normally a bit of a mess. Jim is less happy though, straining against his less-than-perfect domesticity and a wife he feels has changed since they married. He’s started seeing a young woman from his office, Georgie (Sylvia Syms), who is utterly devoted to him and wishes for him to leave Amy. Although Jim says he doesn’t want to hurt his wife, he eventually decides he must tell Amy he’s stepping out with another woman and wants a divorce.
Sylvia Syms has suggested that the reason Woman In A Dressing Gown has become slightly forgotten is because it’s about a woman (it’s so forgotten this is its first DVD release). There’s probably some truth in that, but it’s also true that it’s probably been side-lined because its sensibilities don’t easily mesh with a modern viewpoint. In the early days of 1960s feminism, the movie was championed for depicting the struggles of a woman trapped by a patriarchal system, but while the film knows there’s something wrong with the traditional domestic model, it’s unsure what it is – largely because it was made before they had been fully articulated by the feminist movement. There’s still a sense in the film that the highest aspiration a woman could or should have is to be the devoted servant of a man, and that Jim’s philandering is somewhat understandable in the face of a wife who doesn’t always have the ironing finished and forgets to sew a button on his shirt.
It’s fascinating in the special features where they talk about the fact that for many young women in the late 50s, it was Sym’s character who was the sympathetic one, even though she’s essentially a wannabe homewrecker. She’s a more refined woman than Amy, who wants to save a man from what she sees as a life that traps his potential. Apparently at the time many sympathised with that, especially considering Amy is far from a domestic goddess.
The film is unusually morally neutral towards its characters, and in its desire to show there are reasons for everyone’s actions, it comes close to condoning things that seem rather unjustifiable to modern eyes. As mentioned, it knows there’s something wrong with the entire setup of traditional 1950s male and female roles, but its uncertainty over exactly what the problem is results in a movie that’s a great look at social history, but also oddly accepting of adultery and the sexist gender roles it’s exploring.
Woman In A Dressing Gown’s attempts to talk about things that were either ignored or hadn’t been properly articulated in 1957 extend to Amy’s possible clinical/post-natal depression, which is impressive for a film of that age, even if it doesn’t have the language to talk about it as we’d understand it.
The conclusion in particular is fascinating to modern eyes, as many 2012 viewers will be unable to tell if it’s supposed to be a happy ending or not. In many ways it is, but personally I found it rather depressing – people utterly trapped simply because they don’t know how else to live, but muddling through and trying to be happy as that’s what’s expected of them. The filmmakers were obviously aware of this, giving one of the characters a telling mournful look in the final few shots, but once again to modern eyes it’s the wrong character they’re trying to make you feel for here. It’s all wonderfully challenging, giving an amazing window into a social world that rather alien to anyone who grew up after the 1950s. It stimulates the modern viewer’s brain in ways that couldn’t have been envisioned when it was made.
The fact Woman In A Dressing Gown doesn’t have easy, simple ideas that fit with 21st Century ideas about sex and gender roles is probably why it’s been side-lined, but it’s a great shame. Admittedly, at face value it could be argued it’s teaching a ‘bad’ lesson, but in truth it’s a privileged filmic look into the lost and rather ignored lives of average working/lower middle class people and the social roles they had to play in post-war Britain. The disc also includes a few interesting special features that help give the movie a bit of context and also look at its place in the pantheon of British cinemas.
It’s also a good film for those people who insist they’re not a feminist. Woman In A Dressing Gown is a reminder that compared to the late 50s, pretty much everyone in modern Britain is a relatively strident feminist, and that can only be a good thing.
Overall Verdict: While Woman In A Dressing Gown may have somewhat problematic ideas for modern eyes, it’s a fascinating look into the largely ignored world of the rigid social and gender roles of post-war Britain and the problems they caused.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac