Edwardian hypocrisy and post-war deprivation are the order of the day in Brian Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room.
Based on Lynne Reid Banks’ book of the same name, the film follows Jane (an Oscar-nominated Leslie Caron), a twenty-seven year-old French émigré who arrives in early-60s London.
She wants an abortion and the city is seemingly eager to oblige. From the private doctor (Emlyn Weaver) in the polka-dot bow-tie, who veils condescension in sympathy – “I don’t suppose you took any precautions” – to the lonely old woman, Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge), with her dressing gown, her cat, and her anonymous bottle of pills – “By morning it’ll all be over” – they all have their own interests in getting Jane “squared away”: for money or the promise of future company.
The doctor doesn’t even bother to confirm it is what Jane wants.
The film is shot in shadowy black-and-white, set amid the cramped, theatrical corridors of the rundown boarding house and the bright, barren streets of the East End, shopfronts littered with debris; suffused with a quiet elegance by the classical score. These were aspects of Britain not commonly explored in cinema at that point; as are the bedbugs that haunt Jane’s sheets or the photo of a lost, forbidden love that haunts Mavis.
As the News Of The World poster says, “ALL HUMAN LIFE IS HERE”.
There’s the landlady, Doris (Avis Bunnage), who declares her liberality in renting to “nigs” – “There’s them that won’t” – or the wry, humourful observations of Jane’s would-be suitor, struggling writer Toby (Tom Bell), on the smell of fish and chips as an aphrodisiac for Englishmen. Then there’s Johnny (Brock Peters), a young black jazz musician whose kindly nature makes him an easy figure to ignore or take advantage of.
All are victims of an age where the values of the older generation have been eroded by time and circumstance, leaving only disillusionment.
And then there’s Jane herself: an outsider, pale, soft-spoken, yet defiant; And so Jane finds herself stood in the kitchen of a café, the camera swooping in as she stares in mistaken longing at as stranger, or peering out between the bars of her bed like a frightened caged animal; trapped.
If this is kitchen sink drama – coined in reference to a painting, rather than the implication of “Everything but…” – the fixtures are exemplary.
The L-Shaped Room is available now, newly restored, on DVD and BluRay as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics collection. Extra features include new interviews with Leslie Caron and Lynne Reid Banks, as well as a new features: “The L-Shaped Room & The British New Wave”.