Woman in a Dressing Gown has been described by film historian Jeffrey
Richards as "a Brief Encounter of the council flats", taking the scenario of an
extra-marital relationship and relocating to a less middle-class setting.
However, writer Ted Willis described it more simply, as a film about "good
honest fumbling people caught up in tiny tragedies".
As its female-focused title suggests, the film spends a lot of time on Amy,
the wife whose husband wants to leave her, and Yvonne Mitchell's bravura
performance in the role was awarded with the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear
for best actress. Amy is anything but the model '50s housewife: she burns food,
never finishes the housework, always has the radio on too loud, and rarely finds
the time to get dressed properly. But the film allows us to see some of the
reasons why she might have become that way (grief, loneliness, boredom), rather
than simply demonising her, and as such it might be considered as an inchoate
expression of some of the problems with the housewife role to which feminists
would return in subsequent decades. Nonetheless, the film is not unfairly biased
towards the abandoned wife: it gives time and space to the dilemmas faced by
husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) and 'other woman' Georgie (Sylvia Syms) as they struggle with their feelings for each other and their guilt about the hurt they
are inflicting on others.
Woman in a Dressing Gown is an important reminder that postwar British
realism did not begin with the New Wave, and that the 1950s were not devoid of
socially engaged cinema, as is sometimes suggested. Indeed, in the field of
gender politics, one could argue that this film is considerably more progressive
than the New Wave that superseded it, in its focus on the travails of a
middle-aged housewife rather than those of a virile young man. As Sylvia Syms
put it: "There are certain films of that period that have gained enormous fame,
the obvious one is Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was a wonderful film,
full of brilliant performances, but it's about a man, and men have always been
more important than women. Yvonne Mitchell did not go on to become a big
international star as Albert Finney did, but Woman in a Dressing Gown precedes
it by some time."