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Burning an Illusion (1981)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Pat is an ordinary, working-class London girl. From a caring family, she has an office job which she enjoys and her own flat, but what she really wants is "to settle down."

Out one night with her friend Sonia and her boyfriend Chamberlain, Pat meets Del, a young toolmaker and Chamberlain's friend. They go on their first date to a black restaurant. Although she rebuffs his efforts to take things further too quickly with a firm thank you and good night, Del is persistent. They start dating and fall in love.

When Del moves in, however, things begin to go wrong. Anxious to get some commitment from him, she nags him about their future together. He's content with the relationship and reacts angrily at what he sees as her possessiveness and attempts to tie him down. She's concerned about his relationship at work (for which he's frequently late) with a new white foreman who Del feels is racist.

Things escalate when Del is sacked for being late and arguing with the foreman and Pat finds herself the only earner in the home. Angry that there's now no money for the holiday, the new carpet and colour TV she'd been planning, Pat is frustrated when Del starts hanging about more with Chamberlain and his "layabout" friends, often coming home late. Del asks why she can't be more like Sonia. Meanwhile, Sonia too is upset by Chamberlain's constant philandering.

Unable to find work to restore his dignity, Del becomes increasingly distant and disrespectful to Pat. Cynthia, a politically conscious friend, advises both Sonia and Pat to stand up for their rights. Finally, during another of Del's boozy card parties at her flat, Pat erupts and orders Del to leave, in front of Chamberlain and the others. Leaving, Chamberlain goads Del to control Pat. When Del tries to follow this advice and hits her, she defends herself with a knife. He backs off, packs and storms out.

Alone again, Pat returns to her single life, sad but determined to start afresh. She's pleased for Cynthia when she hears of her pregnancy and loving partner but rejects the political meetings Cynthia invites her to, still preferring her romantic novels.. Del phones, but she refuses to take his calls. He waits for her one day after work and persuades her to give their relationship another chance. They're soon happy again.

Out one night with Del, Chamberlain and Sonia, Pat is horrified when Chamberlain starts to hit Sonia for talking to another man. Del intervenes, Chamberlain pulls a knife and Del retaliates by drawing his own. Chamberlain flees when sirens are heard but Del and another friend, Scotty are accosted and manhandled by the cops. Provoked, Del slashes an officer with his knife. He's arrested and sentenced to four years.

Distraught, Pat tears up her romantic books. She decides to stand by Del, hoping his upcoming appeal will halve his sentence. In prison, Del reads books about black history and becomes more militant. Pat starts to read these books too. She meets another black woman involved in campaigning for the rights of black prisoners and starts attending meetings.

Del's appeal is turned down and Pat is deflated. Sonia announces she's engaged to marry her new boyfriend and Pat realises Sonia wants the wedding to show off. Pat is attacked in a drive-by shooting by a group of racists, and ends up in hospital. The experience is consciousness-raising. She realises she is part of a fight for black survival. She throws out her romance novels and now thoroughly politicised - she joins the movement for black liberation.