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The Romantic Englishwoman

Posted on the 21 March 2017 by Christopher Saunders
The Romantic EnglishwomanWe return to the ever-maddening Joseph Losey, whose oeuvre is brilliant and terrible in equal measure. The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) showcases all of his strengths and weaknesses: at heart a compelling look at marital discord and love's complexity, it's weighed down by the director's compulsive need to play auteur.
Elizabeth Fielding (Glenda Jackson), discontented wife of novelist Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine), visits Baden-Baden without telling her husband. She strikes up a brief flirtation with Thomas (Helmut Berger), a dreamy young man who claims to be a poet. When Elizabeth returns home, Lewis has a surprise: Thomas has phoned their house and asked to stay. Lewis hires the young German as a secretary, to Elizabeth's frustration. Thomas is a drug dealer, not a poet, which doesn't stop Elizabeth from falling for him - even when a menacing gangster (Michael Lonsdale) comes calling.
Based on a Thomas Wiseman novel, The Romantic Englishwoman has elements of a fine drama. Wiseman and cowriter Tom Stoppard's script works best showing Elizabeth and Lewis's marriage, alternately affectionate (making love on their lawn, to the consternation of neighbors) and excruciating. The two bicker over Lewis's work obsession while Elizabeth grouses over her dissatisfaction. Thomas's arrival throws a spanner in the works; his presence marks an eruption of melodrama into their staid, bitter domestic life.
This is where Englishwoman falls down. Not content with this ill-conceived triangle, Losey garnishes the film with meta commentary and pretension. Lewis writes a hack screenplay as the plot unfolds, working Lewis and Thomas into his story, imaging their tryst in Baden-Baden as an idyll. The idea isn't bad, but Losey and his writers convey it with such hamfisted bluntness that it loses any impact. Surely the arrival of someone like Thomas into their lives in remarkable enough that we don't need fantasy cutaways? This reaches an absurd apex when Elizabeth and Thomas finally hook up, intercut with scenes of Lewis imagining their elevator tryst. Why bother?
As usual, Losey's direction is luxurious to the point of excess. Scenes in Baden-Baden and later the French Riviera overflow with sumptuous scenery and elaborate long takes; late in the movie, there's a seemingly endless overhead crane shot of Thomas conducting a drug deal at a seedy Calais café. Losey repeatedly uses his favored technique of scoring dialog scenes with ambient sounds, while the fantasy scenes range from effective (moving shadows in the elevator) to absurdly surreal (a truck crashing into a restaurant). There's so much self-conscious artfulness we long for a more restrained approach.
Fortunately, the cast makes up for it. Glenda Jackson, always a formidable actress, makes Elizabeth's anger and existential frustration palpably real, even if she seems too smart to fall for Thomas's flaky charm. Michael Caine seems odd casting for an intellectual, but his intensity sells Lewis's pettiness and casual cruelty. Helmut Berger makes Thomas a freeloading crook with a sensual swagger, constantly poking through Lewis and Elizabeth's pretensions. Euro stars Michael Lonsdale, Nathalie Delon and Reinhard Koldehoff are squandered in bit parts.
The Romantic Englishwoman seems like material for a great movie, but it only fitfully connects. The material needed a director who could grasp its angsty conflicts and thematic content without resorting to distracting excess. Sometimes a story is best-told without bells and whistles.

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