[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
The Hireling is, I believe, Alan Bridges’s first film. Aside from rather too frequently belaboring the contrast between indifferent wealth and pathetic poverty in the early part of the film, Bridges manages to pretty much avoid the stylistic excesses to which debuting directors are often prone. However, his muted, somewhat eviscerated approach works both for and against this adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel (Hartley also wrote The Go–Between which Joseph Losey brilliantly translated to the screen). Bridges’s tone is occasionally just right for this enervated tale about the relationship between a neurasthenic aristocrat (Sarah Miles, whose performance won her a special citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and her stolidly correct hired chauffeur (Robert Shaw), but cumulatively it begins to wear on one’s nerves like a too precisely, albeit tastefully, furnished room. Too much order, too little deviation from a predictable pattern—but admittedly, the style recapitulates the theme. For Leadbetter the chauffeur, with all of his emerging middle-class virtues—manliness, discipline, common sense–hasn’t got a prayer of playing Mellors to Lady Franklin’s Constance Chatterly, or of disturbing in any felt way the insulated world in which his lady lives, if not thrives. Fresh out of a sanitarium, Lady Franklin is still whey-faced and rheumy-eyed with grief over her husband’s untimely demise. What she needs, and what she gets from Leadbetter, whose car and company she hires, is human contact without threat or expectation, the kind of unjudging acceptance that only therapists and servants of a certain era can provide. As she violates class convention after convention in her pursuit of sanity and begins to bloom with renewed health, the disorder of passion enters the doggedly disciplined life of Leadbetter, who turns gradually sick with jealousy and desire. What feels to him like the intimacy of shared experience between man and woman is merely the intimacy one may cultivate with a favored, though ultimately invisible, servant.
The unscaleable barriers between them are concretized for the audience, if not for Leadbetter, in one particularly moving sequence of events. He proudly squires her to a series of boxing matches between boys he has trained himself, in essence inviting her to share in an important part of his life, and is delighted by her excitement and interest in the sport. But it is his effete and devious young captain (Peter Egan) with whom she dines afterward while Leadbetter waits sullenly in the car. Her rapt response to the captain’s patently affected and unearned reference to the poetry of Rupert Brooke to inflate his own experiences in the Great War is worlds away from her spontaneous enthusiasm for Leadbetter’s boxing. In another painfully humiliating scene, Leadbetter accepts her genuinely affectionate and concerned gift of money (though it’s not clear that he’s really in need of it) because it’s literally the only contact, the only relationship, he can achieve with the woman he loves. That Lady Franklin is fated by birth and her own stunted imagination to reënter the claustrophobic confines of her bell-jar existence—from which the momentary aberration of despair had briefly freed her—is simply never in question. Like the class system it depicts, The Hireling denies its characters the ability to choose or change: thus, it is a drearily foregone conclusion, attained with little passion or perversity, that Leadbetter must end by smashing his beloved Rolls-Royce against indifferent walls—destroying the symbol of an upward economic mobility which can never decrease the terrible distance between a Leadbetter and a Lady Franklin.
Direction: Alan Bridges. Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz, after the novel by L.P. Hartley. Cinematography: Michael Reed. Music: Marc Wilkinson.
The Players: Robert Shaw, Sarah Miles, Peter Egan, Elizabeth Sellars, Caroline Mortimer.
Copyright © 1973 by Kathleen Murphy