We continue our journey through the 1970s films of Sir Michael Caine – this time we look at the rather unbelievable drama The Romantic Englishwoman.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for The Romantic Englishwoman lay ahead…
Directed by: Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between, Mr Klein)
Tagline: There doesn’t appear to be an official tagline but, to be fair, it is quite hard to sum this one up pithily. Due to the saucy content “Too Hot for Taglines” will have to do.
Other Featured Geezers: Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, Helmut Berger as Thomas, Michael Lonsdale as Swan, Kate Nelligan as Isabel.
What’s it all about, Alfie?: Caine stars as Lewis Fielding, a successful author whose bored wife Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) has done a runner to the German spa town of Baden-Baden to “find herself”. However, what she actually finds there is smarmy drug smuggling gigolo Thomas (Helmut Berger). No hanky-panky happens, but he follows Elizabeth back to England where he is invited by the suspicious Lewis to stay with them and become his secretary (for God knows what reason, honestly, what was wrong with people in the 1970s?). Of course, they inevitably do start an affair and Elizabeth elopes with him. Then, as is always the case with messy love triangles, a gangster played by a Bond villain gets involved and presumably takes Thomas off to be executed (this film is all over the place).
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Caine-ness: Caine first appears about ten minutes in, fixing a drink in a nice big country house. He isn’t particularly stretching himself in this role (other than occasionally having to pretend to write) as he’s playing a fairly normal bloke and gets to do his usual accent and wear his glasses.
There’s some peak Caine shouty and pointy acting in a scene where he calls Elizabeth’s journalist friend “boring,” telling her “washing someone’s dirty underpants is what you’re best suited to.” He also does a nice bit of drunk acting, with plenty of slurring, but for the most part he’s pretty restrained in this.
His character is a successful author. We find out about his writing regime (he can’t start work until everything is in its place, and gets easily distracted by hoovering and the washing machine), and his eclectic reading habits (we see him, in quick succession, switch between reading three different books in bed including a collection of The Goon Show scripts and a guide to income tax). However, we don’t get given too much information about what specifically he writes apart from seeing the cover of one of his books, titled “Cloud Cover”. I know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, I’m going to, and I’m going to say that I’m not a fan of his work.
Caine-nections*: There are no connections that I could find in terms of reoccurring cast and crew, although Caine would later go on to work again with Kate Nelligan (who played Elizabeth’s journalist friend) in The Cider House Rules (1999).
In terms of his character, this is the second time that Caine has played an author after Pulp (1972). But I don’t want to read either character’s work.
*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie
Best Non-Caine Actor: Glenda Jackson is our lead (the titular “romantic Englishwoman”) and spends half the running time staring sadly out of windows and the other half getting her kit off, all whilst sporting a distractingly similar hairstyle to Will from Stranger Things.
Jackson is a great actress, and so does the best with the material that she’s given, but I was never entirely sure what the writer and director were getting at with her character. I’m sure the film was intended as a gritty psychological study of the “new” empowered woman of the decade but it’s written by men (Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman, based on his novel) and directed by a man, and it’s the 1970s, so it’s not surprising that they haven’t created a particularly convincing, or empathetic, female lead.
Elizabeth’s rash decision to wreck her seemingly idyllic life of luxury with a nice enough husband, and leave her son who she loves, for a fling with a dodgy German never seems believable and the film doesn’t do enough to justify this. Especially compared to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s excellent The Lost Daughter whose central character makes a similarly rash decision but, in that film, enough work is done to ensure that you can empathise with her character whether you agree with what she does or not.
However, being men doesn’t actually assist the creative team in understanding how men think either as Lewis’ motivations also never ring true. Inviting Thomas to stay and keeping him around is just silly, and immediately makes Lewis unsympathetic as a character because he’s acting like such a plonker.
I will say that, in spite of the dodgy writing and murky character motivations, I thought Caine and Jackson did a fairly good job. They had genuine romantic chemistry and I could believe them as a loving, passionate couple.
I found Helmut Berger as Thomas irritating rather than charming. I’m not sure how intentional that was, but I’m betting that he was meant to be at least slightly appealing but, to me, Thomas came across mostly insufferably smug and cold. The only time that I could sympathise with him was when Elizabeth starts banging on about her son and Thomas wanders out of the room in the background whilst she’s still talking. This is a sentiment familiar to any childless person who spends too long in the company of a parent.
My favourite performance was the fleeting appearance of perpetually hangdog faced Michael Lonsdale (future bond villain Hugo Drax in 1979’s Moonraker) as the dapper head gangster tracking Thomas, kitted out as very much the typical Bond villain in his all-white attire and bowler hat. He’s only on screen for a few minutes but for that time he’s dryly sinister yet charming and I would have much rather that the film focused on him. He’s the character with the most sympathetic motivations. Thomas messed up his drugs, so of course he’s annoyed! Elizabeth should have run off with him, he’s a successful independent businessman and a snappy dresser.
As you can see from the photo below, in the film’s most interesting casting move the Fielding’s son was played by Leo Sayer implementing the same forced perspective techniques that were later used with Gandalf and the Hobbits in The Lord Of The Rings.
Some Thoughts on 1970’s Cuisine as Featured in The Romantic Englishwoman:
To my great surprise The Romantic Englishwoman contained some of the most graphic stomach-churning imagery ever committed to film, putting even Cronenberg’s body horror to shame. Namely this below grotesque photo of a full English breakfast that Elizabeth passes in the supermarket. It looks like something from a particularly gnarly medical textbook. I have no idea (and don’t think I want to know) what the hell that growth is coming up from the middle of the plate. At a push, in an emergency, I’d maybe eat the eggs but that’s it.
These fancy desserts don’t look a whole lot better either! Why are they so grey and stodgy? Why does that trifle appear to have grapes on top of it?
And they can’t even get digestive biscuits right. They look like coasters! Ugh, horrible. And they are accompanied by anaemic sandwiches with algae bunged in their crevices and a sad manky lemon to go with the tea. Get a grip 1970s Britain!
There’s something about the way that food was photographed in the UK pre–1980 that always made it appear absolutely repulsive. Just look at Delia Smith’s early cookbooks (or don’t if you’re about to have your dinner). Perhaps that’s why obesity wasn’t as much of a problem back then. Anyway, I just had to get that off my chest, back to the film…
My Bleedin’ Thoughts: In Caine’s first scene, a director is talking to him about his latest project; “a psychological film about the new woman”. Lewis’ response is; “I think it’s a very boring idea…It’s also pretentious and derivative, but mostly it’s boring…Why don’t you turn it into a thriller?”.
It was bold of the film’s writers to review their own film within the first 20 minutes. Lewis’ sentiments are exactly how I feel about The Romantic Englishwoman. It is pretentious and derivative, mostly boring and I definitely wish it was a thriller (the gangster subplot was the only thing I cared about).
It’s perhaps churlish of me to criticise the acclaimed Tom Stoppard, but everyone has their off days, and his script here is filled with nonsense that appears profound but very much isn’t. Thomas, giving the film its title, whilst discussing his dalliances with women of various nationalities, says; “The Englishwoman was the most romantic, all she wanted was everything”. But this is meaningless, what’s he on about?
Superficially this film is most similar in Caine’s oeuvre to Zee And Co (1972), another psychological British relationship drama dealing with the affairs of affluent middle-aged couples. I think this is overall a more competently put together film than that, but because of that it’s ultimately less entertaining. Neither are good films but at least Zee And Co is entertainingly bizarre and campy (and Caine got to show off his mad ping-pong skills) whereas this is mostly restrained and po-faced and so, ultimately, is just a bit dull.
Best Supporting Eyebrows:
This is actually from a legitimately funny little scene in which Mr Eyebrows (not his real name), the Fielding’s neighbour, catches the couple in flagrante in their garden but, unfazed, stops and has a chat with Lewis about his gardening whilst a naked Elizabeth saunters back to the house.
What I Wish the Plot Had Been About: When Thomas arrives in the UK, he stops by a newsstand to buy one of Lewis’ books and in the bottom right you can see a newspaper with the headline “Alcoholic Santa For…” and also “I was Rod Stewart’s Masseuse” (I’m hoping these stories were connected). I would have taken either of these as plots over what we ended up with. If it had turned out that Thomas was Rod Stewart’s masseuse that would have been a twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan and this film would have instantly entered 5/5 territory, but alas, no such luck (and I’m still wondering what that alcoholic Santa was for since the bottom of that headline was obscured).
Trivia: Courtesy of IMDB:
Caine said that the director Losey was so serious throughout the shoot that he made a bet with the crew that he could make him laugh before the end of filming. He lost the bet.
Helmut Berger and Glenda Jackson hated each other, which does explain their lack of chemistry.
Harold Pinter, a frequent collaborator of Joseph Losey’s, was offered a cameo role but turned it down. I assume it was playing Rod Stewart’s masseuse, and when Pinter turned it down, they removed that subplot.
Overall Thoughts: There’s some okay performances but overall, I just don’t buy the central conceit and the character motivations which means it falls flat. It’s watchable, and slightly engaging in parts, (especially since these sort of relationship dramas starring big names are rarely released nowadays) but I think that Caine fans, other than completists, are okay giving this one a miss.
Rating: 2 Neighbour’s Eyebrows out of 5
Where You Can Watch This: This has recently aired a few times on the Great! Movies Classic channel in the UK. It is also available to rent and purchase digitally through Amazon Prime or on DVD.
Up Next: Caine teams up with his old pal Sir Sean Connery, and director John Huston, for the classic historical adventure yarn The Man Who Would Be King. Finally, another good one!
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