Film critics do not fear — or even much dislike — bad films, and the reason is simple: there is as much to write about a film that’s very bad as there is to write about a film that’s very good. (Any critic could conjure a million words on why Citizen Kane is great or why Troll 2 is awful). Furthermore, there is normally quite a lot to say about a film that is either quite good or quite bad.
What film critics fear are the unremarkable movies: those that are not good, bad or memorable enough to give us much — or, indeed, anything — to praise or criticise, attack or defend. Private Road is such a film. It might not always have been, but it is now.
Set and shot in middle class England in the ’70s, it depicts the relationship between Peter, a promising young writer played by Bruce Robinson, and Ann, the quietly strong-willed secretary at his publishers played by Susan Penhaglion. They go out together, start sleeping together, and move in together.
Ann falls pregnant and the decision is made, very much not together, that she should have an abortion. After she does, her relationship with Peter is tested and he must — or, rather, he believes he must — choose between being a single novelist or a married advertising copywriter.
Such a summary probably makes Private Road seem more direct, and interesting, than it is. Even at only 90-minutes, the film is too slow to develop, and too concerned with everyday irrelevancies, to truly engage an audience. Famously, Hitchcock said ‘drama is life with the dull bits cut out’; Private Road shows two lives with the dull bits left in.
There are two points of tension in the plot. The first is the strain placed on Peter by the aforementioned choice he feels he must make between being an artist and being a normal man. This is a problem that concerns him greatly, but not really one that ever concerns us. We are never convinced — because we are shown very little evidence — that he could ever be much of an artist or much of a man.
The second, and more interesting, of the plot’s points of tension is that Peter and Ann reach early adulthood in the years immediately after the sexual the revolution of the ’60s, while Ann’s parents (played by Robert Brown and Kathleen Byron) had their attitudes about adulthood, and sex, set well before it. This produces several nuanced scenes between Ann and her father, and her father and Peter, which expose the uncertainties the older generation of the period had about the entitlement the younger generation felt to sex and self-governance.
When it was first released, Private Road had two key attributes in its favour. Firstly, it was politically and socially relevant and, secondly, it was stylistically ahead of its time. Forty years later, politics, society and filmmaking have moved on and, viewed now, the film has nothing much to say about any of them. Subsequently, it leaves the film critic with nothing much to say about it.
The slow, unfocussed and improvisational air Bruce Robinson brings to the film made it stand out in the ’70s. Now, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Robert Altman have all used that style to achieve far more than Robinson even attempts here, and 21st Century audiences should perhaps simply watch, or re-watch, their films instead of his.
What’s more, the film’s concern with the social issues of the day is not as engaging as it would have been four decades ago. Today, for example, the questions of whether a liberated but intelligent young couple needs to feel they should allow a drug-addicted acquaintance to shoot up in their bathroom, or whether a father has to allow his adult daughter to date, have pretty much been answered and don’t need to be asked again.
This is not to imply the film is dreadful. Unless a viewer approaches Private Road with the aim of being deliberately dismissive, he or she is unlikely to be angry at it for wasting his or her time. The characters charm us enough that we wish to know what happens to them (even if, when it does happen, it’s unconvincing or an anticlimax) and the acting is subtle enough that it sustains us through scenes that last too long.
This isn’t a film to walk out of — but it isn’t a film to watch more than once. (In case it matters to you, I’ve seen it twice.) In short, Private Road isn’t a bad film — it just isn’t a good one.
It is supplemented on this blu-ray and DVD set by two other films. The first is a moving 48-minute documentary, by Barney Platts-Mills, about the education of the mentally handicapped. The second is The Last Chapter, David Tringham’s 1973 short, starring Susan Penhaligon (and Denholm Elliot).
Both are interesting additions, and well worth watching, but they do not salvage the set. Also included, I am told, is a ‘fully illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essays by Kevin Jackson, Vic Pratt, and Susan Penhaligon’ but, since the BFI did not send this to reviewers, I can’t pass comment on it here.
There is one reason film critics fear the apparently unremarkable movie that I have omitted to mention — and it is the reason we fear them most. By finding a movie unremarkable, and by saying we have nothing to say about it, we may be seen to have missed the point. And perhaps I have missed the point of Private Road.
But, if I have, I imagine the vast majority of viewers would miss it too. This is both the Age of Austerity and the age of almost every movie ever made being available for home viewing and, given that today’s film fan has unlimited choice but limited disposal income, it is difficult to see who — outside a small group of cineastes dedicated to filmmaking of this style, origin or era — is going to pay to purchase Private Road.