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Memento Mori (1992)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Memento Mori (1992)
DirectorJack Clayton
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerLouis Marks
Screenplay byAlan Kelley
 Jeanie Sims
 Jack Clayton
From the novel byMuriel Spark
CinematographyRemi Adefarasin
MusicGeorges Delerue

Cast: Maggie Smith (Mrs Mabel Pettigrew); Michael Hordern (Godfrey Colston); Renée Asherson (Charmian Colston); Stephanie Cole (Dame Lettie Colston); Thora Hird (Jean Taylor); Maurice Denham (Guy Leet)

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Several elderly friends and acquaintances in 1950s London are disturbed to receive mysterious telephone calls predicting their impending deaths...

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This was Jack Clayton's last film, his first comedy, and his most critically acclaimed work since his sensational 1959 feature-film debut, Room at the Top. That same year, Muriel Spark had published Memento Mori, which Clayton had read and resolved someday to film. Finally encouraged by the success of Driving Miss Daisy (US, d. Bruce Beresford, 1989), which proved that the theme of old age need not be box-office poison, Clayton offered the project to the BBC. In turn encouraged by the theatrical success of its own television films such as Truly Madly Deeply (d. Anthony Minghella, 1990) and Enchanted April (d. Mike Newell, 1991), the Corporation accepted. Memento Mori was shown at festivals worldwide, and won several prestigious awards, including the screenplay award from the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

The film's assurance comes from Clayton's empathy with the theme. Having lost friends during his RAF experience in the war, he genuinely felt that people should remember the inevitability of death, for it would stimulate an appetite for life. Although given a schedule and budget more restricted than he was used to, he seems in his element, and there is an abundance of cinematic expertise on display: for example, the moment when Mrs Pettigrew enters the room to interrupt a conversation between Charmian and Mortimer, and the subtle framing signals a shift in the balance of power; or the battle of wills over Charmian's medication between her and Mrs Pettigrew, where the camera focuses on the latter's painted nails as she does a sinister finger-ballet over the pills like a spider enticing a victim into its web.

Producer Louis Marks calculated that the cast had about a thousand years' worth of acting experience between them, and the performances of, for example, Michael Hordern, Maggie Smith, John Wood, Renée Asherson, Thora Hird and Stephanie Cole are outstanding. Georges Delerue's score (sadly, his last before his death) is perfectly attuned to the film's contrasting moods. Indeed, while respecting the novel's macabre tone, Clayton brings an additional perspective that, without sentimentality, understands and accepts human foible and folly. There is snobbery, greed, even violence here, but also a humorous and humane observation of disappointed lives, and the way the ravages of time can reduce crotchety adults to behaving like spiteful children. Memento Mori has something of the mellow maturity that distinguished another great film about ageing, The Dead (1987), by Clayton's mentor, John Huston.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. Telephone messages (1:44)
2. Taking the pills (2:03)
3. A competent versifier (2:26)
4. The gathering (5:33)
Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
Wanamaker, Zoë (1949-)