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Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

Main image of Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)
35mm, black and white, 110 mins
DirectorJack Clayton
Production CompanyRomulus Films
ProducerJames Woolf
ScreenplayHarold Pinter
From the novel byPenelope Mortimer
CinematographyOswald Morris
MusicGeorges Delerue

Cast: Anne Bancroft (Jo); Peter Finch (Jake); James Mason (Bob Conway); Janine Gray (Beth Conway); Maggie Smith (Philpot)

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The story of a marriage of two sensitive, articulate people, bound together by the strongest physical and emotional ties yet helpless in their inability to communicate.

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The Pumpkin Eater takes its title from the nursery rhyme: "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater / Had a wife and couldn't keep her. / He put her in a pumpkin shell / And there he kept her very well." As this allusion suggests, one of the central concerns of the film is female entrapment - the experience of being kept 'in a shell'. The heroine, Jo, has all the ostensible trappings of a happy life: a handsome, successful husband, a beautiful house, an enviably affluent lifestyle, and battalions of healthy children. Yet she still comes to the conclusion that her life is "an empty place". She even suffers an emotional breakdown in the most unlikely of places - the luxurious Kensington department store, Harrods.

One could read the film as a proto-feminist protest against women's second-class status and limited opportunities, no matter which class they belong to. Certainly, Penelope Mortimer's original novel is animated by a sense of frustration and anger at patriarchal values: "A womb isn't all that important. It's only the seat of life... At school the word 'womb' used to make them snigger. Women aren't important." However, Harold Pinter's adaptation has the effect of making the film less about Jo (the novel had been written in the first person from her point of view) and more about the relationship between Jo and her husband Jake: it offers a complete portrait of a marriage from first meeting and initial romantic idyll through betrayals and bitter disputes to a tentative reconciliation between the estranged couple. As the director Jack Clayton put it, the film investigates "the infinitely simple idea of the difficulties in any married relationship while at the same time showing the tremendously strong relationship that grows almost inevitably."

The film's treatment of angst among the sophisticated metropolitan bourgeoisie lead to a comparison with the work of the director Michelangelo Antonioni, chronicler of Italy's idle (and anxious) rich. Indeed, one review of The Pumpkin Eater was entitled (sarcastically) 'Keeping Up with the Antonionis', unfairly implying that the British film was nothing but a superficial copy of the European art film, lacking its profundity. Looked at today, The Pumpkin Eater's achievement can be seen more clearly: a remarkably honest film about love, sex, marriage, infidelity, reproduction and parenthood made by a director, writer and group of actors all at the height of their powers.

Melanie Williams

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Video Clips
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
Clark, Jim (1931-)
Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)
Finch, Peter (1916-1977)
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric (1893-1964)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
Female Protagonists