Telling the sad story of two souls who misunderstand the connection that they find with each other, British drama The Hireling energizes familiar class-system dynamics with a tight focus on characterization. Moreover, the near-perfect casting of the leading roles allows Sarah Miles to epitomize the plight of a fragile individual forced by birth to perpetuate the noblesse oblige of the upper class, while Robert Shaw, at his most animalistic, portrays a lower-class striver who temporarily forgets his station, causing ugly consequences. There’s a love story of sorts hidden inside The Hireling, though the filmmakers wisely present the quasi-romance as a tragedy illustrating what happens when people accept social boundaries as insurmountable and permanent. Intimate, loaded with well-chosen visual metaphors, and relentless, The Hireling achieves that rare thing in the dramatic arts—pure storytelling clarity—even though the lack of fully developed supporting characters renders the movie imperfect.
Set in the early 20th century and directed with admirable economy by Alan Bridges from a sensitive script by Wolf Mankowitz, the picture begins with the release of noblewoman Lady Franklin (Miles) from a sanitarium. We soon learn she had a nervous breakdown following the death of her husband. Hired to drive Lady Franklin home is Steven Ledbetter (Shaw), a rough-hewn commoner who puts on airs of crisp manners in order to grow his small chauffeuring business. In reality, Steven bitterly resents England’s class system, perhaps because he wasn’t able to rise above the rank of Sergeant Major while serving in the military during World War I. Steven addresses those with higher stations as “milady” and “sir,” but his anger at the limitations placed upon him by society is evident to anyone who looks closely enough—which, of course, members of the nobility never bother to do.
Over the course of Lady Franklin’s reentry into normal life, she often hires Steven for driving and for companionship. He listens politely while she talks about her grief, and he accompanies her on outings and picnics. The reason Lady Franklin believes the time she spends with Steven to be appropriate is that he fabricates a story about being happily married with children. Secretly, however, Steven becomes infatuated with Lady Franklin and deludes himself into thinking she returns his affection. Reality shatters Steven’s world when an ambitious gentleman named Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) sets his sights on Lady Franklin’s fortune. A smug prick who served as an officer during the war (adroitly representing his “superiority” over Steven), Hugh seduces Lady Franklin even as he keeps a lover on the side. In his capacity as a driver-for-hire, Steven sees everything, leading to a wrenching confrontation.
Although it’s easy to envision an Americanized remake of The Hireling with blood pumping closer to the surface—Miles’ performance is icy and Shaw’s portrayal eventually becomes quite brutish—the cruel machinations of the British class system are essential to the movie’s efficacy, because The Hireling is all about topics characters refuse to address because doing so wouldn’t be “proper.” As captured by Michael Reed’s beautifully moody photography, the characters in The Hireling are trapped because of the gaps between their personal identities and their social identities. As they say in the UK, mind the gap.
The Hireling: RIGHT ON