Very much in the style of the kitchen-sink dramas that pervaded British screens and stages during the ’50s and ’60s, this grim tale of family dysfunction employs the familiar contrivance of a special occasion triggering cataclysmic arguments and painful revelations. Specifically, when an aging English coal miner and his wife welcome home their three adult sons to commemorate the parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, the sons engage in verbal combat that rips back the façade of the seemingly “normal” family. Conceptually, this is quite ordinary stuff, but crisp writing, exceptional performances, and probing explorations of the English class system make In Celebration worthwhile. Produced for the American Film Theatre, the picture was directed by Lindsay Anderson from David Storey’s 1969 play, which Anderson also directed onstage.
The piece is largely a vehicle for Alan Bates, reprising the leading role he performed during the play’s original run, so Bates’ singular way of infusing dialogue with cruelty, derision, and self-loathing drives the experience. He plays Andy, the family’s ne’er-do-well elder child, who ditched a promising law career to become a painter. Andy is also the keeper of the family’s secrets, and because those secrets chew at him like cancers, he seizes every opportunity to confront his relatives with evidence of their hypocrisy and inadequacy. The family’s middle child, Colin (James Bolan), is a career-minded conformist about to marry a woman even though he’s a closeted homosexual, and the youngest child, Steven (Brian Cox), is a would-be author harboring profound psychological pain even as he wears the mask of a contented husband and father. Meanwhile, the parents (played by Constance Chapman and Bill Owen) have issues of their own—the mother feeds delusions of grandeur by pushing her children toward lofty social positions, and the father deeply regrets spending nearly 50 years working underground just to support a wife he doesn’t understand and sons who seem incapable of happiness.
In Celebration is all about the ways in which families project their dreams and nightmares onto each other, so past wounds including the death of a fourth son linger over the whole clan like toxic clouds. Exacerbating all of these problems are communication issues stemming from generational differences. The parents were raised to suffer through their problems, but the sons, ironically, gained the ability to articulate every nuance of their feelings because of the educations foisted upon them by their parents. Bleak and harsh from beginning to end, In Celebration works because Storey plays fair—rather than situating one character as the family’s moral center, he demonstrates how each character is incomplete. For instance, Steven lashes out at the domineering Andy by saying, “Attitudes like yours are easily adapted—all you have to do is destroy what’s already there.” As this hyper-literate dialogue suggests, the stage origins of In Celebration are never hidden, but director Anderson uses limited sets to create a sense of claustrophobia that energizes the material. More importantly, the performances are close to perfect, from Bates’ overbearing menace to Cox’s quiet suffering. In Celebration is a rough ride, but it’s a rewarding one.
In Celebration: GROOVY