Our Mother's House
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Produced and directed by Jack Clayton; written by Jeremy Brooks and Haya Harareet, from the novel by Julian Gloag; cinematography by Larry Pizer; edited by Tom Priestley; art direction by Reece Pemberton; set decoration by Ian Whittaker; music by George Delerue; starring Dirk Bogarde, Pamela Franklin, Margaret Brooks, Sarah Nicholls, Mark Lester, and Yootha Joyce. DVD, color, 104 min., 1967. A Warner Archive release.

From Room at the Top (1959) to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987), Jack Clayton directed seven feature films, all noteworthy. Two of them, The Innocents (1961), a classic adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and a compromised though still compelling version of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), are trips into the fantastic. Our Mother’s House (1967) tiptoes into this territory as well.

In outline, the film (from an acclaimed novel by Julian Gloag), resembles a Hammer horror picture from the period, like, say, The Nanny (1965), where a secretive Bette Davis confronts a troublesome child. Here the focus is on a family of seven troubled youngsters, with the adult star, Dirk Bogarde, not entering until the midpoint. The Hooks live with their invalid mother, a fundamentalist, in a Victorian pile in the suburbs of London. When she dies, the children decide to bury her in the garden and continue to act as if she were alive, lest they be separated and sent to orphanages. The eldest, fourteen-year-old Diana (Pamela Franklin, who made her film debut in The Innocents), puts on her mother’s clothes and, during “mommy time,” reassures them from the beyond.

A family portrait

That’s the extent of “supernatural” occurrences in the film, though the overhanging gloom of the punitive religiosity practiced by the mother, who is glimpsed only at the time of death, is rarely dispelled. Lies to authority figures and forged checks support the illusion of an orderly household after her passing. A steady diet of biscuits, hot chocolate, and deceit isn’t as sustainable. In the film’s most disturbing scene, young Gerty (Sarah Nicholls, another Clayton discovery, who, as Phoebe Nicholls, played Cordelia Flyte in the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited) falls ill after Diana, play-acting their mother, has her siblings call her a “harlot” and cut off her hair. When that crisis passes, another develops when Jiminee (Mark Lester, a year from playing the title role in Oliver!) lets a runaway classmate hide in the house. A concerned teacher nearly uncovers the ruse—but is sent away when the children’s father, Charlie (Bogarde), intervenes.

Charlie’s timely appearance offers a respite from the quiet morbidity of the first part of the film, as the children, obliged to grow up, again become children, and enjoy outings with their dad. A movie that had been claustrophobically interior goes outside and stretches its legs for a few minutes. It doesn’t last. Second eldest Elsa (Margaret Brooks), who had his address but resisted contacting him, soon has reason for her suspicions. With his spendthrift ways, drinking, and carousing with “loose women,” Charlie isn’t much of a grownup, and Bogarde, who had graduated from Rank Organisation crowdpleasers to the darker likes of Victim (1961) and The Servant (1963), relies on his early skill as a light comedian to play him. At first, only Elsa and the Hooks’s occasional housekeeper, Mrs. Quayle (Yootha Joyce, who had a memorable scene in Clayton’s prior film, the domestic drama The Pumpkin Eater), are onto him, with a smitten Diana taking his side. When Charlie bares his resentment at being a father, he learns that Our Mother’s House isn’t a home.

Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) comforts his ailing sister Gerty (Sarah Nicholls).

In a memoir, Bogarde wrote that he “loved every second of the film,” which began when his co-stars left him a note, saying, “Let’s hope you’re as good as you’re cracked up to be. You’d better be.” (He was, and they were no slouches themselves, either.) Our Mother’s House was very much a family affair. Jeremy Brooks, Margaret’s father, wrote the screenplay, which was then rewritten by Clayton’s wife Haya Harareet, the Israeli actress best known for Ben-Hur (1959). The film was the second of five collaborations between Clayton and composer Georges Delerue, whose music provides a lilting, almost fablelike counterpoint to the oppressive atmosphere of the first half, followed by a tinge of the blues as the wastrel Charlie settles in.

Sentiment was lost on the British censors, who slapped Our Mother’s House with an “X certificate,” the rough equivalent of our R rating today. Home Alone it’s not, nor is it an exploitation flick, despite seamy goings-on that divide children forced into adulthood and a father who refuses to accept adult responsibilities. The clash of worlds is sharply, yet delicately, observed, and the Warner Archive’s rescue of a film as neglected as its setting, via an attentive anamorphic widescreen transfer properly framed at 1.66:1, is welcome. Do, however, skip the trailer, which gives away almost every twist, until after viewing the film.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste editor and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

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Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3