The Servant (1963)
“A Terrifyingly Beautiful Motion Picture!”
The Servant (1963)
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig
Synopsis: Tony, a British aristocrat, hires the mysterious Hugo Barrett as his household servant.
While the class system still exists in Britain today, its divisions are nowhere near as distinct as they were when The Servant, Joseph Losey’s trenchant examination of the ultimately corrosive consequences of an ostensibly symbiotic relationship, was released. It’s the first of three celebrated collaborations between the American director Losey and British playwright Harold Pinter, who ploughed a rich furrow dissecting the perpetual struggle between the classes. The other two films on which Pinter and Losey worked together were Accident and The Go-Between.
Dirk Bogarde (So Long at the Fair), usually something of a fey actor with an upper class accent, assumes the blunt tones of the Northern working class in his role as the insidious title character, Barrett, although he softens his tone somewhat to temper its harshness. James Fox (Cleanskin) is Tony, the foppish young aristocrat with big plans but a lack of drive, who employs Barrett as his servant. Tony thinks Barrett’s a find, but his fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) senses something a little disturbing about him, and her discomfort is quickly translated into blatant hostility. She becomes even more concerned when Tony takes on Barrett’s sister, Vera (Sarah Miles – White Mischief) as a maid. And well may she be, for it’s not long before Tony allows himself to be seduced by the young girl.
The slowly shifting balance of power in The Servant is fascinating to observe, and neatly mirrors the complex relationship between the classes. While the wealthy might unthinkingly look down upon their working class servants – if, in fact, they give any thought to them at all – they are also dependent upon them to preserve their pampered lifestyle. The irony is that in most cases – at least, before the 1960s – neither side of the class divide was particularly aware of this. Pinter was intelligent and astute enough to explore a ‘what if’ scenario without breaking the bounds of reality, and the incremental degrees by which Barrett takes over Tony’s life is quite chilling to watch. He also finds dark humour in the situation, particularly in the home-erotic undertones that come to the fore when the balance of power finally shifts. The Servant might not be a particularly enjoyable watch and, as with most of Pinter’s characters, you wouldn’t like to have to spend too much time with any of them, but it is undoubtedly an intelligently written and acutely observed one.
(Reviewed 17th September 2015)