Home Video Hovel: A Taste of Honey, by David Bax
With its hardscrabble, lower-class milieu and often documentary-like aesthetic, Tony Richardson’s astounding A Taste of Honey often feels like a precursor to the works of Mike Leigh or, for that matter, even Ken Loach, whose debut, Poor Cow, was still six years away and his first masterwork, Kes, eight years in the future. And while that’s all good and true from a contextualizing, academic perspective, it’s not something the viewer is likely to spend much time pondering. So intimately powerful is Richardson’s film that it will obliterate the intellectual distance between itself and its audience. When you watch it, whenever and wherever you are, it’s 1961 and you’re in the rugged streets of North West England.
Rita Tushingham stars as Jo, a teenage girl living with a single mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), more interested in socializing with an eye on landing a man than in anything close to parenting. This leaves Jo more or less alone most of the time. And that’s how she finds herself, walking home one night past the shipyard, when she encounters a young sailor named Jimmy (Paul Danquah). A brief affair ensues but Jimmy must set out to sea. It’s only later that Jo discovers she’s become pregnant. Compounding her hardship, Helen has fallen in with a boorish new man named Peter (Robert Stephens) who is willing to give her a marriage and a home, provided she cut Jo loose. So, knocked up and penniless, Jo rents a flat and takes a job selling shoes, where she meets her soon-to-be roommate and new best friend, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), with whom she will more strongly face the world.
Of course, things don’t wrap up as smoothly as all that but I’ll leave the tragedies for you to uncover on your own. It suffices to say that Helen is the movie’s antagonist. Yet, it’s to the great credit of Richardson, Bryan and, most especially, screenwriter Shelagh Delaney (adapting her own play with input from the director) that Helen remains a nonetheless sympathetic figure. Jo, with her headstrong self-sufficiency, and Helen, with her self-serving pragmatism, together represent examples of how women of no means often must choose between independence and security.
It wouldn’t be wrong to describe Delaney and A Taste of Honey as a sort of “angry young woman” response to the mid-century, British “angry young man” literary trend. In fact, a quick Google search tells me that many have already done so. The film could also correctly be described as a socially liberal clarion call; Jimmy is black, Geoffrey is gay and both are as fully human as Jo or Helen (and certainly more so than Peter). But it would also be underserving the film to corral it under pithy labels. A Taste of Honey is a monumental achievement in character-focused empathy and Jo is one of the most burningly human people to ever step into a cinematic frame.
The transfer here, scanned in 4K from the original camera negative, is fantastically sharp with a perfect black and white color balance. A couple of minor stability issues only work with the grain to make the film feel more tactile. The sound is a tad uneven but that has more to do with the low budget nature of the production and the capturing of live sounds on locations than it does with anything relating to Criterion.
Special features include new interviews with Tushingham and Melvin, a 1962 audio interview with Richardson, a 1960 television interview with Delaney, a 1998 interview with cinematographer Walter Lassally, a new featurette about Delaney’s original play, a short film by Richardson from 1956 and an essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.