Up the Junction has been going for almost 45 minutes before Polly Dean (Suzy Kendall), whose ‘60s-era Suzanne York-ness instantly puts her at odds with the surroundings, is asked what she’s doing in such a gloomy British factory town when she was raised rich and proper across the river in fancy pants Chelsea. She is evasive, offering an answer without really providing a response, and this distinct absence of convenient exposition describes the overall experience of director Peter Collinson’s adaptation of Nell Dunn’s award-winning book from 1963.
Dunn’s work was a collection of short stories, and while the filmed version does sometimes suggest an assortment of vignettes, it remains cohesive on account of Polly’s plight. She’s a Posh Spice purposely seeking out life on the wrong side of the tracks.
The film’s opening shot finds the camera tracking with Polly’s private car as she crosses the River Thames and gets dropped off to hop a bus. At that point the camera pans south, focusing on the distant smokestacks of industrial Battersea before fading out. Instantly, the camera fades back in, this time positioned directly in front of those same smokestacks, swiftly conveying the idea that even if these two places are within sight of each other, they are wholly separate.
It would seem this separation is precisely what Polly seeks. Straight off the bus, she walks into a candy factory and applies for a job. The foreman and his secretary look at Polly like she’s an Eloi coming down to congregate with the Morlocks. Still, if she says she wants to work, they’ll put her to work.
She meets a pair of sisters, Rube (Adrienne Posta) and Sylvie (Maureen Lipman), both speaking in accents so thick they may as well be a different language. At first, Polly can hardly deduce their slang, a tourist struggling in a new place without the guidebook, but she quickly ingratiates herself and they become friends.
The scenes in the factory are evocative for the way they place a gaggle of women together, young and old and very old, visually demonstrating how a whole life can be lived out in one place. Indeed, there’s a fatalistic air about Battersea, an unbroken yellow line of weekly work and weekend play that culminates in “a pine box”. This is how Pete (Dennis Waterman), the one local boy who doesn’t seem intent on dressing like a Beatle and whom Polly begins dating, puts it.
The only respite from such dismalness is drinking and the false hope of more money. And if in Polly’s prior life she had so much money, why would she willingly walk away from it to take a crap job and live in a dingy flat with hand-me-down furniture?
Oh, just for fun, let’s spin Pulp’s “Common People” while we read, shall we?
As author of the source material, Dunn herself came from a privileged background and actively sought a working class environment with a harsher social edge and her experiences are what formed the book. It begs the natural question of whether Polly is meant to be viewed as some sort of journo-sociologist, and while the film never really suggests this, it also remains rather vague about her explicit motivation. About the best we get is a vague stock answer that goes: “Freedom, I suppose. Free to be yourself.”
Maybe she really believes it. Manfred Mann composed the film’s soundtrack, a collection of soft rock songs often set over montages that find Polly strolling through her environs and smiling. She watches her co-workers dance to ward off boredom and accompanies them to the pub where they ignore the stupid boys and get up on stage to sing. It puffs up Battersea as her personal promised land. Alas, only a wicked downturn can wait.
For all their chumminess, neither Rube nor Sylvie can quite figure why this could-be model is slumming in the boonies, and this open-ended question finally becomes the social wedge that drives itself between her and Pete. They take a field trip to his childhood home, abandoned and rundown, and they make love in his barren childhood bedroom. It’s emblematic not only of the empty existence he is destined to lead, but the emptiness of the idea that this place is Polly’s elixir.
Despite the film being nearly 50 years old and intended in its moment as a reaction to London’s Swinging Sixties, Up the Junction comes across just as apropos of America’s here and now. The financial and social divide between the have and have not’s is ample and each side is loath to trust or care about the other. Finally and inevitably, Pete calls out Polly on the monetary safety net he is sure she has, and when he does, the invisible line between the two is crossed. No matter how much he wants out of his place in the world and she out of hers, their birthrights supersede all.
In a way, Polly is like a ‘60s twist on Joel McCrea’s John L. Sullivan, the Preston Sturges-created film director of Sullivan’s Travels who poses as a poverty-stricken tramp and takes to the road to understand the difficulty of the downtrodden. That film centered around Hollywood, however, and, thus, was naturally afforded a Hollywood ending.
Up the Junction, on the other hand, is pure United Kingdom Kitchen Sink Drama. It ends with death, bloody noses, theft, tears, and the bitter dregs of vicissitude. There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh, but some movies don’t have that.