Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Homecoming (1973)

          Mysterious, provocative, and vicious, The Homecoming concerns an English household so overrun with male energy that the tenderness normally associated with family units has been replaced with cruelty, intimidation, and manipulation. God help any woman unlucky enough to enter the household. Produced by the American Film Theatre, the picture is a slightly opened-up version of Harold Pinter’s play, adapted for the screen by Pinter and directed by Peter Hall, who served the same function for the play during its 1965 stage premiere in London.
          Taking place almost entirely in the family’s home, the movie begins in the middle of a merciless argument between patriarch Max (Paul Rogers), a widower who elevates bitterness to an art form, and his ineffectual brother, Sam (Cyril Cusack). Then Max’s middle son, Lenny (Ian Holm), enters the mix, and he’s as much of a monster as his father. Cold, hurtful, and vulgar, Lenny delights in prodding the weak spots of other people’s psyches, so it fits that he makes his living as a pimp. Next to enter the picture is Max’s youngest son, the simple brute Joey (Terence Rigby), a struggling boxer whom Max hopes will win enough money by getting his brains bashed in to support the family.
          Later in the story, after the warring relatives have gone to bed for the evening,  a sleepless Lenny ventures downstairs and discovers Ruth (Vivien Merchant) sitting in the living room. It seems that during the night, Max’s oldest son, Teddy (Michael Jayston), came home unexpectedly after a long absence—and that Ruth and Teddy were recently married. The intrusion of a female into this testosterone-riddled household sparks all sorts of psychosexual drama, but Pinter plays everything deadpan. This elevates the material from kitchen-sink melodrama to lofty symbolism. At the story’s most absurd juncture, Ruth ends up making out with Joey on the living-room floor while Teddy calmly observes from a nearby chair, smoking his ever-present pipe, and while the rest of the family provides nonplussed color commentary. (“We’re talking about a woman of quality,” Max beams while Ruth is humping his son.)
          The Homecoming becomes more and more surreal as it winds toward an insane climax, but what keeps the piece on track is Pinter’s meticulous characterization and dialogue. (Not every writer can work the phrase “pox-ridden slut” into a conversation.) Echoing Pinter’s restrained style, Hall keeps the camerawork simple and employs a muted color palette. The performances consistently rise to the level of literary artistry on display. Excepting Cusack and Jayston, the cast was carried over from the original stage production, so the actors wear their roles like second skins. Holm and Rogers are the standouts, since they get the showy roles filled with crude insults and demented monologues, but the straight faces of Jayston and Merchant are crucial to the overall effect.
          Designed to be analyzed, debated, and interpreted—thanks to its singular treatment of class, family, and gender—The Homecoming is both fabulously ambiguous and terrifically specific. It has the force of a nuclear bomb and the precision of a sniper’s bullet.

The Homecoming: GROOVY

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