Adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play and directed by Peter Medak, whose work here echoes the style of his fellow Englishman John Schlesinger, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg explores a profoundly depressing subject with a strange mixture of irreverence and solemnity. The story concerns a couple whose only child suffers from cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair, unable to communicate through gestures or words, and subject to occasional seizures, Jo (Elizabeth Robillard) is a virtual invalid and a source of never-ending anguish for her parents, schoolteacher Bri (Alan Bates) and housewife Sheila (Janet Suzman). Yet the first half of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is filled with levity, because Bri uses jokes and playacting to transcend the grim reality of his family’s everyday life. Medak takes this narrative trope even further by slipping into fantastical scenes, Bri’s tall tales made “real.”
Sheila plays along with Bri’s escapism, though it’s plain she’s more focused on the here and now, and it soon emerges that she’s aware of a different set of fantasies that Bri entertains. He sometimes imagines himself murdering Jo so that he and his wife can be free of the burden she represents. The juxtaposition of dark and light elements makes the first hour of the picture a bit discombobulated, but things come together during a lengthy monologue that Sheila delivers close to the midpoint. She confesses to humoring her husband and further admits she’s as despondent about the family’s situation as Bri. What buoys her is faith and the optimism it inspires—she considers any life miraculous, and she believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Jo may someday improve.
The second half of the picture isn’t much smoother than the first, because two dinner guests join Bri and Sheila, bringing the simmering debate about how to handle Jo to full boil. The wife, sickened by Jo’s pathetic state, advocates mercy killing, while the husband, a detached logician, equates that suggestion to the Third Reich’s Final Solution. It’s all very heavy, though on some level the story is about marriage as much as it’s about mortality; the central dramatic question explores whether two people can stay together if their viewpoints on the single most important topic that connects them are different.
Alas, the various parts of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg clash as often as they cohere. Jumping between fantasies and realities was all the rage in the late ’60s, but the technique had lost its novelty by 1972, when this film was released. Additionally, Medak never seems clear whether the husband or the wife should occupy the center of the storyline. If it’s the husband’s story, then A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a bleak statement about a weak soul favoring comfort over compassion. If it’s the wife’s story, then it’s an equally bleak statement about the nurturers of the world suffering in silence. Either way, the movie is unpleasant to watch, and not every viewer will agree the harsh thematic takeaways justify the investment of time and tolerance the picture requires.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg: FUNKY