Sunday, January 9, 2011

Peter Medak - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972)

New York Times Review:

Story of Spastic Child and Her Parents
Published: June 5, 1972

Some experiences are so special that it's impossible to imagine how one might react to them until they come to pass: being in an air raid, winning a million-dollar lottery, losing one's sight or one's pants.

Death, the commonest mystery and usually inevitable, is like that. So too is the experience shared by Bri and Sheila in "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," Peter Medak's English film adapted by Peter Nichols from his play which ran on Broadway four years ago.

Bri (Alan Bates), short for Brian, is a teacher in a boys school in Bristol, a man who embraces failure and loss with humor that is the wit's end of despair. His wife, Sheila (Janet Suzman), is the sort of woman who, as she says, tries to make life work, as if it were a troublesome washing machine that won't go unless it's at a tilt. Largely because of Sheila, their house is stuffed with second-order life—goldfish, birds, plants, two cats named Sidney and Beatrice Webb, one of whom, Beatrice, acts as host to a colony of errant fleas.

More importantly, Bri and Sheila are the parents of a 10-year-old daughter, Joe, variously referred to as "a living parsnip," "a wegetable," "no trouble at all," "crackpot" and "my blossom."

Joe is a spastic whose brain is so damaged that she is incompletely helpless, a lump of life whose eyes float in their sockets like the twin bubbles in a carpenter's level. She is unable to talk or move, or do anything except lay about, slumped over in a wheelchair.

"A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," which opened yesterday at the 68th Street Playhouse, is a difficult movie to describe properly. It is beautifully acted, funny, moving, but infinitely depressing.

The play was presented as a kind of domestic, one-set, cabaret theater, with a jazz combo at the side of the stage to accompany Bri and Sheila in their direct confidences to the audience, in their song-and-dance turns, and in their burlesqued reminiscences of life with Joe, with the idiot doctors who attended her, and with one C of E vicar, imitated by Bri, who tried to sell them a laying-on-of-hands ceremony.

Although Mr. Nichols has not changed the play's text much except to add several subsidiary characters and scenes that take the film outside the house into Bristol and to the seashores, "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" is now completely naturalistic.

The only distance left in it is anything but Brechtian. lt is the distance that Bri and Sheila take as they stand apart from themselves, apart from their wounded egos, as they play little games in which they give Joe the imaginary identity of a bright, fractious child, and through Joe, alternately rail at and caress each other.

One immediate and major effect of this naturalism is to transform the film into a love story, but one that doesn't quite fit the shape of the plot that Mr. Nichols has devised, which is that of the dissolution of a marriage.

I suspect that "Joe Egg" has always been first and foremost a love story, though it was difficult to recognize on stage through the cabaret turns that gave it a kind of epic form. Remove those vauderville bits and you have the profoundly felt experience that Mr. Nicholas has taken from his own life but changed in significant ways.

The first child of the playwright and his wife was a spastic daughter, described by Mr. Nichols when interviewed here tour years ago as "a meaningless accident."

"We used to make up fantasies about the child, but we are not the parents in the play," he said. "We put our child in a home, which, of course, is what the parents in the play should have done." Instead of despairing, the Nicholses had two more children, both normal.

In projecting his story into fiction, Mr. Nichols succeeds in making us believe in the love between the parents so completely that it's impossible to believe that their life together is collapsing, as the play wants us to, which may be why the film seems more depressing than it need be.

"A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" is worrisome indeed, difficult to recommend, since it isn't grand enough to go much beyond its special experience, but easy to admire in isolated instances—Bates's rages at God ("a manic-depressive rugby footballer"), his imitation of the swinging churchman (met on a banthe-bomb march) singing "Animal Crackers in My Soup," Miss Suzman's beautiful soliloquy about the day Joe knocked down some toy blocks, all of the supporting performances, especially Joan Hickson's as Bri's purposefully dim, self-centered mother, a woman who can be counted upon to say of sleep: "Two hours before midnight are worth two after, I always say."

A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, directed by Peter Medak; screenplay by Peter Nichols, based on his play of the same name; director of photography, Ken Hodges; editor, Ray Lovejoy; produced by David Deutsch; distributed by Columbia Pictures. Running time 106 minutes. At the 68th Street Playhouse, Third Avenue at 68th Street. This film has been rated R.

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