Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

British "Hireling" is a gem of a movie

Cleveland Press August 25, 1973

A sense of what is suitable is what the chauffeur talks about when his employer, Lady Franklin, asks if she may sit up front with him.

But what is suitable is not so much a problem for Lady Franklin as it is for Leadbetter, the chauffeur, who seeks ways to close the social gap between employer and servant, a gap that looms large in the setting of England in the 1920's.

"The Hireling" is one of those minor gems of an English film, in a class with "The Go-Between" if not quite equal to it. It is based on a novel by the author of that former movie. L. P. Hartley, but the filming team is a different one.

"The Hireling" has been adapted by Wolf Mankowitz who strives, sometimes overly much, for the elliptical style of Harold Pinter who did the earlier screenplay.

Director Alan Bridges has directed "The Hireling" with a measured pace, a care for the telling detail. There is nothing extraneous. Eventually, everything in the movie is a part of the whole. If he lacks some of the bravura style of Joseph Losey who directed "Go-Between" he nonetheless handles his material with care.

Once again the theme is one the vast barrier between social classes, of suppressed sexuality, of a casualness that is almost cold on one side and a striving that is painfully frustrated on the other.

The story is a deceptively simple one. Lady Franklin, widowed and childless, has just been released from a sanitarium, having suffered a nervous breakdown at the time of her husband's death.

She is unable to relate to her old life, to friends and certainly not to her mother -- a stuffy, remote woman who seems embarrassed at her daughter's presence.

There is only Leadbetter with whom she can chat, probably because there is no closeness. It is like the confidence one grants a stranger. In their social setup the chauffeur will always remain a stranger.

But the servant vaguely sees it differently. He makes up a story about a non-existent wife and children to provide something to talk about, to put him on a more equal footing.

As the woman gains self assurance and begins to move among people once more (thanks to Leadbetter) she has less need for the long, time-consuming auto rides. The chauffeur feels slighted, suffers a mixture of sadness and outrage.

As Lady Franklin, Sarah Miles is allowed the full range of emotions. Much of what she does is something of a specialty with her -- the trembling, the moodiness. The role is a tour de force and the actress is equal to it.

Robert Shaw is remarkable in the less showy role of the chauffeur. An ex-sergeant major, ramrod straight, filled with a sense of class and keeping his place, he indicates subtly the change in character. Self-assurance breaks down until he foolishly and pitifully declares his love only to have it received as the drunken ravings of a servant who has forgotten his station in life.

The climax finds him battering his precious car as he sings patriotic songs, a man torn between his feelings and a lifetime of class consciousness.

"The Hireling" is not a masterpiece but it is a well and thoughtfully made movie, almost as much a rarity as a masterpiece.