ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) Blu Ray (Indicator)
A lonely piano teacher in 1950s Ireland
This adaptation of Brian Moore’s 1955 novel is set in Dublin, Ireland during the 1950s. It features Maggie Smith in the role of Judith Hearne, a lonely, devoutly Catholic piano teacher who moves into a guesthouse run by the seemingly kindly Mrs. Rice (Marie Kean) and her boorish son Bernard (Ian McNiece). She also meets the former’s brother named James Madden (Bob Hoskins), a businessman who has recently returned from New York.
Over time, she quickly becomes entranced by this seemingly debonair character and asks him to accompany her to Sunday Mass. When he invites her to the movies and out to a swanky restaurant, she becomes convinced that he feels the same way about her. When it turns out that he is hard up for cash and mistakenly believes that she can fund one of his proposed ventures, she falls into despair and back into an old habit: the bottle.
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A bleak but compelling character study
The final big-screen venture by English director Jack Clayton (The Innocents, The Pumpkin Eater) received some degree of contemporary critical acclaim, earning Maggie Smith a BAFTA award in the process. Nonetheless, it is another of those films which have somehow become largely forgotten about in the years since then.
Watched today, it is clear that it has aged very well over time. It’s less of a stuffy period drama (although the period details are indeed impeccable) and more of a bleak character study. It’s a harrowing tale of personal misfortune and naked psychological cruelty, albeit one rooted more deeply in performances than in graphic imagery.
A large part of what makes the film work so effectively is Maggie Smith’s superb central turn. While she exudes a delicate, mild-mannered vulnerability through much of the runtime, her drunk scenes provide some shockingly intense emotional explosions. The drama hits the mark precisely because of the contrasting yet equally well-observed extremes within her acting style here. While the supporting cast is fine, especially Bob Hoskins as a flawlessly-accented New Yorker and Ian McNiece as the landlady’s creepy son, it’s really Maggie’s show.
At the same time, Jack Clayton’s direction deserves a lot of credit. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne possesses a haunting, ghost story quality à la his earlier The Innocents, albeit with metaphorical ghosts from the past exhumed via a flashback structure which hands us some clues as to the background to Judith Hearne’s alcoholism. There is some great cinematic imagery here, especially the gracefully hallucinatory superimpositions during the “drunk” scenes and a jolting moment of blasphemy as Hearne confronts the god who has forsaken her by shouting “I hate you!” into a camera which takes the POV of a church altar. There’s also that suffocating omnipresence of an old Irish Catholic milieu - one which operates with a superficial politeness and yet proves to be utterly claustrophobic and stifling (especially to women). It’s no wonder that Hearne keenly takes to the fact that Madden has spent so much of his life in the (perceivedly) more forward-looking America.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne has plenty of disturbing subject matter: alcoholism, psychological abuse, insanity and even a brief rape scene. However, it remains a compelling and thoughtful work which still provides a light at the end of the tunnel by its close, even if it’s only the faintest glimmer of one.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Jack Clayton
Script: Peter Nelson, based on a novel by Brian Moore
Starring: Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Wendy Hiller, Marie Kean, Ian McNiece, Alan Devlin, Rudi Davies, Prunella Scales
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The colour grading has a warm, nostalgic quality about it that is very appealing even if the images themselves are a little on the soft side. The soundtrack is also particularly stirring and rousing here.
Judith Hearne Remembered
Maggie Smith, Rudi Davies and Ian McNiece discuss the film. Smith reveals that the original novel was set in Belfast but the film was relocated to Dublin due to The Troubles going on in Northern Ireland at the time. While the exteriors were shot in the latter city, the townhouse interior was a multi-level set built at Shepperton.
The trio also point out a few interesting pieces of trivia. For one thing, the scene where Maggie Smith slaps Ian McNiece was done for real - for take after take! If you look carefully at the opening credits, you will also note that Rudi Davies’s name has been misspelled as “Rudi Davis”. However, it is spelled correctly in the end credits.
Selected Scenes Commentary with Neil Sinyard
Once again Sinyard, the Professor of Film Studies at the University of Hull, provides his very worthy input to an Indicator disc. He talks us through almost 33 minutes’ worth of scenes from the film. Interestingly, he reveals that Jack Clayton initially wanted to adapt the novel Judith Hearne some 25 years before he actually got around to it. In the end, however, he was glad that it happened later because he got to work with actress Maggie Smith. John Huston (with whom Clayton worked on a number of occasions) had also expressed an interest in making it with Katherine Hepburn in the title role.
The extras are rounded out by a trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a truly bleak and haunting experience which is well worth a look, especially for Maggie Smith’s performance. While there aren’t too many extras here, they are enlightening and informative.