A closely observed character drama with a few thriller elements thrown in for added tension, The Romantic Englishwoman has all the hallmarks of director Joseph Losey’s best work: evocative European locations, immaculate performances, subtle writing, and an undercurrent of menace. So, even though the story is nominally about Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson), the dissatisfied wife of successful novelist Lewis (Michael Caine), it’s also about Thomas (Helmut Berger), a German freeloader who claims to be a poet but really makes his living as a drug courier. These characters muddle through life, the Brits narcotized by their boring routine and the German energized by the dangerous unpredictability of his existence, until their collision produces an emotional explosion with lasting repercussions.
Elizabeth, for instance, is so tired of Lewis’ withholding quality that she does things like walking across her lawn naked in full view of a neighbor—anything to rebel against the numbing status quo. When she meets Thomas while on holiday in Germany, Elizabeth inadvertently broadcasts so much need that Thomas senses an opportunity. Then, after Thomas loses a drug shipment and flees the continent to avoid reprisal, he arrives at Elizabeth’s doorstep pretending to be a fan of Lewis’ work. Handicapped by an artist’s ego, Thomas savors the younger man’s fawning attention (well, as fawning as this cold-blooded operator can be), even though Lewis senses the physical charge sparking between his houseguest and his wife.
Working his signature slow-burn vibe, Caine meticulously illustrates the way Lewis drives himself crazy with visions of his wife’s possible infidelity; when Elizabeth and Thomas finally consummate their attraction, it’s as if Lewis has perversely willed the event into being. Jackson, flying high during the most vibrant stretch of her career, paints a complex portrait of a woman driven by guilt, insecurity, longing, and regret—she’s a loving mother to her young son, but also a short-tempered harridan who attacks her nanny when she believes the nanny has captured Thomas’ affections.
The Romantic Englishwoman takes its time getting where it’s going, so the first hour of the movie often seems repetitive and unfocused. However, once all the pieces are in place, the second hour gains intensity because romantic intrigue is coupled with the threat of Thomas’ drug-business associates targeting him for revenge. One might argue that Thomas Wiseman, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based and cowrote the script with Tom Stoppard, should have cut a few subplots to make the story flow more smoothly, and it’s true that Losey indulges his penchant for slow pacing by exploring narrative discursions. Nonetheless, when The Romantic Englishwoman connects, it’s quite potent, particularly in the domestic scenes of Elizabeth and Lewis pouring salt in each other’s psychological wounds.
The Romantic Englishwoman: GROOVY