A friend, who was perhaps not quite tactful enough to become the movie producer he wanted to be, once met the actress Kerry Fox, and told her that her work in Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table was the best female film performance he had ever seen, "Apart from Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne."
While one might think that coming second in the whole of cinema history was still doing pretty well, and that there's no shame in coming second to Maggie Smith in anything, and that the addition of another name and title to the statement shows that my friend had really thought about it and wasn't just blowing smoke up the Fox ass, she apparently didn't look all that pleased. Perhaps she would prefer to be judged up against all actors, not just a female subset. But perhaps the problem was that she hadn't seen The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Hardly anyone has.
The movie was the last theatrical feature of the brilliant but perhaps slightly inconsistent Jack Clayton, former producer for John Huston and latterly the maker of such diverse movies as A Room at the Top, The Innocents, and The Great Gatsby (Redford-Farrow version). His very last movie, the TV-funded Memento Mori, is pretty delightful, and also features Smith, who made her screen debut in his The Pumpkin Eater. While Hearne (as I suppose we must learn to abbreviate it) doesn't achieve the visual brilliance of The Innocents, it achieves a comparable emotional power in a very different register: while the Henry James adaptation is probably the scariest ghost story ever shot, the Brian Moore adaptation is quite conceivably the most wrenching tragedy. Words like "weepie" and "tear-jerker" simply will not do, although the process by which salt water will come spraying clown-like from your helpless ducts is alarmingly physical and irresistible.
(If you're one of those people who never cries at the pictures, I would still approach this flicker with caution: if the reservoirs do finally burst, the traumatic dehydration might well reduce you to a tiny heap of crystallized residue. There have been cases.)
Smith plays the title character, a lonely alcoholic who, it seems, might find the strength to stay sober if only there were someone to love her. God is invoked as a consolation, but frankly it has to be admitted that He is not enough. He may play the role of absent father to perfection, but he cannot take the part of lover. Stepping in as a possible solution is Bob Hoskins, who may not seem like a conventional movie star dreamboat, but has charm to burn and seems attentive and sympathetic. Unfortunately, he's a con artist operating on the mistaken belief that his mark has money: ultimately, he's not much less pathetic than she is, but they are not equipped to console one another.
The film was made by George Harrison's Handmade Films, and probably happened due to Smith's deft comedy turns in The Missionary and A Private Function. Hoskins had just done Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and had gotten so far into character that he was seeing invisible rabbits out of the corner of his eye. He took the role because the idea of a simple film about small groups of people talking in rooms seemed the ideal rest cure: what he discovered is that you don't get to relax when Smith is in the scene. You have to be at the very top of your game. Fortunately, he rose to the challenge.
The look of the film is a slightly washed-out period feeling, combined with occasional flourishes of the optical printer which look to be influenced by the nouvelle vague (frequent Truffaut collaborator Georges Delerue was also Clayton's composer of choice, and his score for this film is simply devastating).
The Dublin settings, more photogenic than the novel's Belfast, are bleakly beautiful (even if the film's DVD release is one of the ugliest transfers I've ever seen) and the central duo do far more than convince: their problems become, for the duration of the film, more urgent and more compelling than our own. With Clayton dead and Hoskins retiring from the screen, the film attains additional poignancy. Thankfully, Smith is still at work being brilliant: if this film got any sadder it is questionable whether an audience could survive the experience.
I recommend you watch it with someone you care about. And for once, I'm perfectly serious.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.