There are possibly three constituencies who will flock to the theatrical release of "Langrishe, Go Down," a recently disinterred British television film from 1978. Harold Pinter completists will embrace one of the writer's lesser-known works, as will enthusiasts of Jeremy Irons, in a performance that predates his "Brideshead Revisited" renown. And then there are those who have always harbored a desire to watch Judi Dench daub meringue on her breasts, proving yet again — because she's also quite good even when daubing — that great actresses can and sometimes do rise above bad material.
The rest of the audience, alas, may be reduced to sighs and titters while watching this gloomy farrago of anguished leaden dialogue, pointlessly fractured storytelling, sexual torment and oblique political metaphor that characterize Pinter at his least successful. Based on a novel by Aidan Higgins and directed by David Jones, the film first aired on the BBC and was dusted off to screen in a recently mounted Pinter retrospective. Unearthing even the roughest gems serves a programming purpose, but in this case it has also led to a theatrical release of a movie that looks like a muddy second-generation Xerox and contains all the emotional and intellectual appeal of cold tea and soggy toast.
The story involves three unmarried middle-aged sisters — those beloved metaphors otherwise known as spinsters — fallen on hard Irish times. Set in 1932, it traces the love affair between youngest sister Imogen (Dench) and a young Bavarian scholar, Otto (Irons), who's living free of charge on the Langrishe family estate. In her early 40s and not yet ready for the grave, Imogen grasps at the affair like a lifeline as her terminally dour middle sister, Helen (Annette Crosbie), who could easily guest star as a corpse on "Six Feet Under," passes silent judgment. For her part, the older sister, Lily (Susan Williamson), exists principally to look dotty as she asks her sisters if they remember when life was grand.
Grand it was, to judge by the gauzy flashback within the film's larger flashback as well as those scratchy records dripping with pathos on the family Victrola. What precisely should be gleaned from the Langrishe sisters, however, and their slide into indigence remains shrouded in mystery, though it may have something to do with English-Irish relations or perhaps fascism. In one scene, a harridan in a jaunty eye patch and a smear of scarlet lipstick (Margaret Whiting) rains down abuse on Imogen for being of Anglo-Irish heritage. In another, Otto tells Imogen that Irishwomen are "pure" in ways that German women no longer are, which seems Pinter's attempt to draw a line between two of his favorite themes, sexual repression and political oppression.
Pinter clearly means to wrench meaning from Imogen's affair with the Bavarian at the family gate, but the affair never resonates on either a personal or political level. A bore in love with the sound of his own voice, Otto has studied with philosopher and future Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, whose ideas about the existential self suggest that Pinter means to explore the tension between a life lived alone and a life lived among others. But this suggestion never develops any more persuasively than Irons' pronunciation. Never mind the meringue or Imogen's moonlit frolic in her birthday suit, Dench's real accomplishment here is keeping cool while Irons mouths lines in a voice straight out of Monty Python's arsenal of unspeakably silly accents. Claus von Bulow isn't the only one laughing.
'Langrishe, Go Down'
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Female nudity, emotional and psychological sadism.
Jeremy Irons ... Otto Beck
Judi Dench ... Imogen Langrishe
Annette Crosbie ... Helen Langrishe
Susan Williamson ... Lily Langrishe
Harold Pinter ... Barry Shannon
Margaret Whiting ... Maureen Layde
A BBC production, released by Castle Hill Productions. Director David Jones. Writer Harold Pinter. Based on the novel by Aidan Higgins. Executive producer Max Rosenberg. Editor Chris Wimble. Musical composer Carl Davis. Sound Grahame Hare. Cinematographer Elmer Cossey. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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