Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Unsuitable Job for a Woman, An (1981)

Courtesy of Goldcrest Films International Ltd

Main image of Unsuitable Job for a Woman, An (1981)
35mm, colour, 94 mins
DirectorChris Petit
Production CompaniesBoyd's Company, Goldcrest, NFFC
ProducersMichael Relph, Peter McKay
ScreenplayElizabeth McKay, Brian Scobie, Chris Petit
Original novelP.D. James

Cast: Billie Whitelaw (Elizabeth Leaming), Pippa Guard (Cordelia Gray), Paul Freeman (James Callender), Dominic Guard (Andrew Lunn), Elizabeth Spriggs (Miss Markland), David Horovitch (Sergeant Maskell)

Show full cast and credits

Cordelia Gray is hired to investigate the 'suicide' of 21-year-old Mark Callender. She unravels a complex web of family secrets and hidden desires.

Show full synopsis

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981) was Chris Petit's second directorial feature, following Radio On (1979). Based on the novel by P.D. James - which was later adapted for television (ITV, 1997-98) - the film draws on the British tradition of detective fiction, while evoking an art cinema feel of ambiguity and sexual complexity. Less 'mainstream' than its detective precursors, such as the Agatha Christie adaptations Murder on the Orient Express (d. Sidney Lumet, 1974), and Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman also demonstrates Petit's knowledge of film. A film critic for Time Out, he shows his credentials with a nod to film noir aesthetics.

Petit says he treated the novel "as a kind of ghost story, a black-fairy tale", and claims the film has more to do with the dark secrets of family than detective fiction. Critic Jane Clarke notes how Petit changes Cordelia from a classic detective to a woman who stumbles across clues as if by accident, and is rarely "in control of the knowledge she has gained". This affects the way the audience unravels the mystery; the viewer is often left unsettled, not quite knowing what is going on.

Detective Cordelia Gray's (Pippa Guard) 'unsuitable job' reveals a complex web of sexual relationships that evokes film noir. Although there is no explicit 'femme fatale', there are echoes of her destructive role in Cordelia's gender-blurring obsession with the dead Mark, and Callender's (Paul Freeman) perverse act of dressing his dead son in women's clothes. The film does not offer a particularly liberating position for the woman who's taken on the man's job - Cordelia is not the strong heroine of James' novel. However, it does raise interesting questions about gender expectations.

The noir style extends to the darkly lit set and ominous buildings, despite the rural England setting which replaces the urban back streets of noir. Mark's cottage assumes a genuinely eerie character, inhabited by random children and strange noises like the witch's cottage in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale.

Rebeckah Clark

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Generation gap (2:33)
2. Maternal memento (4:07)
3. Obsession (4:57)
Audsley, Mick (1949-)
Boyd, Don (1948-)
Furst, Anton (1944-1991)
Petit, Chris (1949-)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)