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Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)

Courtesy of HandMade plc

Main image of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)
35mm, colour, 116 mins
DirectorJack Clayton
Production CompaniesHandmade Films, United British Artists
ProducersPeter Nelson, Richard Johnson
ScreenplayPeter Nelson
Original novelBrian Moore
PhotographyPeter Hannan
MusicGeorges Delerue

Cast: Maggie Smith (Judith Hearne); Bob Hoskins (James Madden); Wendy Hiller (Aunt D'Arcy); Marie Kean (Mrs. Rice); Ian McNeice (Bernard Rice); Alan Devlin (Father Quigley); Prunella Scales (Moira O'Neill)

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Middle-aged spinster Judith Hearne moves into a Dublin boarding house, and takes a liking to her landlady's brother, James who has recently returned from New York. He wants her to invest in a business project, but Judith misinterprets his attentions as romantic...

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Jack Clayton's first British film in twenty years, and his last cinema feature, was adapted from Brian Moore's 1956 novel, its action relocated from Moore's native Belfast to Dublin. This process simplified the critique of religious repression and removed all mention of the sectarian divide.

Instead, the film focuses even more on the central figure of Judith Hearne, a lonely spinster of indeterminate middle age who has spent her youth caring for a cantankerous aunt (Wendy Hiller) and scrapes a living giving piano lessons to a dwindling band of pupils. Though she maintains a fa├žade of respectable proprietry, this is mistaken for concealed wealth. When her landlady's brother James Madden (Bob Hoskins) shows an interest in her, it's as a potential business partner, not the great romance she's been craving for decades. This misunderstanding, occurring on both sides (Miss Hearne thinks that the Dublin-born Madden's adopted New York accent and confident bearing make him a successful embodiment of the American Dream), sets the central story in motion and all but guarantees that it will end badly.

In the title role, Maggie Smith gives a screen acting masterclass in what was widely acclaimed as her most memorable performance since her Oscar-winning turn in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (d. Ronald Neame, 1969). The merest twitch of a facial muscle or near-imperceptible tonal shift in her voice conveys an entire lexicon of emotional information, her delicate bird-like frame suggesting a life of perpetual disappointment long before we find out the truth. The audience is informed, as she is not, that the landlady's family is riddled with hypocrisy: in one repellent scene, Madden, after having chastised his nephew Bernard for sleeping with the sixteen-year-old maid, decides to take advantage of her himself.

But Clayton also lays bare the wider hypocrisies of 1950s Dublin. The Catholic Church professes to help the downtrodden, yet prefers simplistic chastisement to profound soul-searching: Miss Hearne is devout, yet gets nothing in return besides empty promises of a better time in the hereafter. Charity is given reluctantly - Miss Hearne's visits to the O'Neill family are a convenient social arrangement that's gone on so long that no-one can quite remember the original point. This is the story of Judith Hearne's life, and while the bittersweet ending gives her back some measure of dignity, we are under no illusions that she has much more to look forward to.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Ireland vs America (3:31)
2. Nobody cares (2:29)
3. Unwelcome truths (4:51)
4. A religious crisis (1:07)
Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)
Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)
Hoskins, Bob (1942-)
Rawlings, Terry (1933-)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
HandMade Films