The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)

Maggie Smith excels in stately literary drama The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Director: Jack Clayton

Cast: Maggie Smith (Judith Hearne), Bob Hoskins (James Madden), Wendy Hiller (Aunt D’Arcy), Marie Kean (Mrs Rice), Ian McNeice (Bernard Rice), Prunella Scales (Moira O’Neill), Alan Devlin (Father Quigley), Rudi Davies (Mary)

Judith Hearne (Maggie Smith) is a lonely, frustrated Irish spinster who never found her place in the world. Arriving at her new lodgings in Dublin, Judith leaves behind her a whiff of scandal and a slight air of being someone you don’t want in your home. However, while her superior manner may not fool everyone, it’s enough to spark the interest of chancer James Madden (Bob Hoskins) brother of Judith’s lodger Mrs Rice (Marie Kean) – who is not remotely fooled by Judith’s pretence at upper-class gentility. While Judith wonders if romantic love may, after all, finally be round the corner for her with Madden, Madden himself wonders if the starting investment for his next dream is in his grasp.

Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel is a stately passion project. An adaptation that Clayton had worked for years to bring to screen, it’s a quiet and respectful picture that moves with a graceful serenity over its runtime, covering emotional territory but never quite sparking into life. Clayton’s adaptation of the book is precise and perfect in nearly every way, with the film very true to Moore’s style and his ability to capture the domestic tragedy of small-scale, disappointed lives. But it’s not quite a film that hums with inspiration.

What inspiration it has is bound up with Maggie Smith’s superb (BAFTA winning) performance in the lead role as Judith herself. This is surely some of Smith’s finest work on screen, perfectly capturing every beat of this character study. Judith Hearne is a woman who relies on her upper-class background – her airs and manners – to cover up the facts of her poverty and, even more importantly, her chronic alcoholism. Couple this with her self-loathing, her confused attitudes towards God and her (barely consciously aware) mixed feelings for her deceased aunt (Wendy Hiller in imperious form in flashbacks) and she is a woman reeking of disappointment, depression and oppression as much as she does the booze she knocks back.

Smith’s performance progresses throughout the film, from a veneer of assurance to an increasingly poignant and tough to watch collapse into starkly raw emotional disintegration. Desperate in ways she hardly understands for emotional (and physical) content for another, she’s almost touchingly over-enthusiastic when offered the olive branch of friendship of a man, and the self-loathing and loneliness that channel her collapse into brutal alcohol-driven meltdowns show Smith holding nothing back but never once heading over the top. Smith totally understands how to get the balance between quiet tragedy and emotional force, constantly balancing the two expertly. 

It’s her performance that is a triumph of small moments that build over time to carry emotional force, from her careful arrangement of a room to her confused slightly timid eagerness to please when in conversation with Madden. Smith’s superb in the role, never anything less than real her eyes little windows to the depths of sadness in her soul.

It’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up to her and that, despite the force of her performance, the film never quite manages to capture the overall impact of domestic tragedy that the film needs in order to be something more than just a gracefully filmed package around a superb central performance.

Too many other plot directions end up in cul-de-sacs or never get explored. Madden’s frustrated sexual feelings – and his eventual assault on housemaid Mary (a decent performance by Rudi Davies) are simply never explored any further. Bob Hoskins gets short-changed with a character that doesn’t really go anywhere and whose darker side is demonstrated but then never referenced again. The film gives such force to the damage of Judith’s alcoholism and depression that her struggles with the church never quite gain the force they need. This is despite some sterling work from Alan Devlin as a bullying but empty churchman, not interested in hearing about problems that can’t be solved with doggerel and dogma.

The finest subplots feature Ian McNeice is superb as the bloated wastrel son of the landlady, a spoiled, lazy former student claiming to be working on the next great Irish poem (a work he estimates will take him at least another 5 years), but largely spends his time swanning around the house causing problem and sniping arrogantly at the residents. Marie Kean is also fine as the arch landlady who sees through all deceptions, other than her son’s.

It’s a shame that the film itself – for all the excellence of Clayton’s work – doesn’t quite come together into a really coherent package. What it kind of misses is perhaps the sort of sharp, knowing observation and dry wit that Alan Bennett bought to so many similar small-scale stories of wasted lives in Talking Heads. The film is on a grander scale than those, but somehow carries both less weight and less insight than an average Bennett monologue. Smith is superb – possibly a career best – but the film itself is more something to be admired than remembered.

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