Jack Clayton (director)
BFI Film (studio)
20 May 2019 (released)
21 May 2019
This 1959 adaptation based on John Braine’s novel marked a milestone in British cinema with it’s more daring and more realistic approach not only with regards to working class attitudes but an overall more daring candour. It resulted in six Academy Award nominations, with Simone Signoret winning ‘Best Actress’ and Neil Paterson winning the category ‘Best Screenplay’.
It’s the tail end of the 1940’s and Britain is still in the grip of post-war austerity. Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), a young and ambitious Yorkshire lad, is adamant to break out of his working class existence and make something of his humdrum life. Leaving the drab factory town of Dufton behind him, Joe arrives in Warnley to take up a poorly paid post in the Borough Treasurer’s Department. From the outset, the attractive and stubborn young men ‘undresses’ the ladies with his eyes – not necessarily because he’s a lech but because he feels his working class background is the least of all the obstacles (a viewpoint also revolutionary back then!). On the first day in office he spots Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the rich and attractive daughter of Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit) who owns the entire company, from his office window and is adamant to make her his girlfriend – much to the amusement of colleague Charlie Soames (Donald Houston) who remarks that Susan is way out of league for someone like Joe Lampton! Undeterred he pursues her and one evening some of his colleagues take him an amateur production of which Susan is part. After the performance he also makes the acquaintance of the older – and more mature in every way – Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), a French woman now unhappily married to the arrogant George Aisgill (Allan Cuthbertson) who cheats on her whenever possible.
Enchanted by Susan, Joe decides to join the Amateur Theatre Company but come to realise, much to his chagrin, that Susan isn’t participating in the newest production. Instead he strikes up a friendship with Alice though a mutual attraction between her and Joe gradually begins to develop. However, he’s still hell-bent on a romance with Susan, not only because getting involved with her would mean ‘climbing the social ladder’ but he genuinely is smitten although family friend and fellow ‘colleague’ Jack Wales (John Westbrook) never misses an opportunity to belittle Joe. So do Susan’s parents, in particular her snobbish nightmare of a mother (Ambrosine Phillpotts – yes, you read that correctly) who is anything but enthusiastic about her daughter’s dalliance with ‘a commoner’ - hence they promptly send Susan abroad. Seeking solace in his blossoming affair with Alice, she is disappointed to learn that Joe still keeps on pursuing Susan upon her return to Warnley but after a sexual encounters which Susan describes as ‘super’ (very daring for its time) he comes to realise that he feels more for the wiser and more experienced Alice – though they have their ups and down too. A weekend in a friend’s cottage cements their feelings, with Alice being delighted that Joe has finally come to his senses and is willing to give up his dream of social status in exchange for true love. But Alice’s bastard of a husband refuses to divorcer her, what’s more he threatens Joe with complete financial ruin and social scandal. Worse is yet to come: when Susan realises she is pregnant from Joe, her dad arranges a deal: Joe is to marry his daughter and he would also make him a well-paid executive of the firm… under the condition he cut all ties with Alice! Seeing no other option than to accept, he final farewell visit to Alice will have fatal consequences… with Joe finally having achieved his dream of climbing the social ladder which now he longer wants… The ending is devastating of course but the only realistic conclusion.
Apart from some minor changes during the adaptation from novel to film (in the book, the character of Alice Aisgill is not French) this is a powerful drama with outstanding performances especially from Laurence Harvey (his Yorkshire working class accent is very convincing) and Simone Signoret. It is also a powerful testimony of attitudes back then towards working class people attempting to forget their ‘station’ – not only are Susan’s wealthy parents ignorant and arrogant but even Joe’s aunt and uncle advice him to “better stick with your own kind.”
The film spawned the 1965 sequel LIFE AT THE TOP, once again with Laurence Harvey, Donald Wolfit and Ambrosine Phillpotts, but this time with Jean Simmons in the part of Susan Lampton.
ROOM AT THE TOP is presented in Dual Format Edition with interesting special features, in particular Jack Gold’s 1959 short film ‘The Visit’ about the drab existence of a working class spinster whose hope of marriage and a happier life have faded a long time ago.