Nether Regions 10.05.10: Betrayal
Posted by Chad Webb on 10.05.2010
Based on the play by Harold Pinter, this extremely hard to find title brilliantly uses reverse chronology and ends up being one of film's overlooked treasures.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge Directed By: David Hugh Jones Written By: Harold Pinter (based on his play) Running Time: 95 minutes Release Date: February 19, 1983 Missing Since: Judging by the overly huge old school case, the 80's Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: One of the Rarest
Reverse chronology stories are nothing new. The concept has been used in literature, theater, film, comics, and television since the 1930's. Yet whenever the technique is employed it raises heads and is almost always intriguing. Christopher Nolan's Memento is probably the most famous example, but other titles like Peppermint Candy, Irreversible, and The Sweet Hereafter used it as well to varying results. Betrayal, based on the play by Harold Pinter, is an earlier reverse chronology experience. The film, directed by David Hugh Jones, is incredibly faithful to the source and in truth, that's all it needs to be as Pinter's words and approach unravel the secrets between three people.
Ben Kingsley has un-Gandhi like hair as Robert.
The events in Betrayal occur over a period of 9 years and begins with an argument between Emma and her husband Robert. The following day Emma has lunch with Jerry, the "close friend" of Robert's with whom she had carried on an affair for 7 years. It is now 2 years after their break up and she has informed Jerry that her marriage is ending. She explains to him that she and Robert were up all night talking, and when Jerry becomes worried that she told of their relationship, she admits that she confessed it the previous night. The rest of the film travels back in time from that point at 1 and 2 year jumps. With Betrayal, one can either divulge everything or as little as possible. I have elected to go the latter route because my manner of describing the interactions might not do them justice. I will say that various acts of betrayal are committed during the 9 years.
Nothing is heard during the initial fight between Emma and Robert, but the audience acts as a voyeur through the window. Body language reveals enough information, and it is precisely that which is so important in Betrayal. As an observer, we are aware of every agenda, so even though the plot does possess jaw-dropping twists, paying attention to dialogue, expressions, and even the slightest mannerisms brings its rewards in this hypnotizing study of lies and deceit. Pinter and Jones focus on how different the participants view the adultery from when it starts, to its climax, and to its inevitable end. Betrayal is about our memories and regrets, and the reverse storytelling process enhances the gradually shifting emotions and the irony of it all as we sit back knowing almost the entire story.
I became associated with Harold Pinter's play through reviews of The French Lieutenant's Woman, which Pinter also wrote. In one random article was a comment about Betrayal and the fact that it used the reverse chronology technique 17 years before Memento. I decided to go out and pick up a copy of the play, and I loved it. Once I learned a movie existed and that it was exceedingly rare, I did my best investigative work to track it down. The only way to see this is by forking over the cash, and lots of it I might add since copies of the VHS tape are very old and becoming scarce.
Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge embrace as Jerry and Emma.
The plot centers on Emma, but the film belongs to Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, how they communicate, what they're hiding from one another, and how the situation alters their friendship slowly but surely. Irons operates Jerry with firm but caring subtlety through each leap in years. The first sequence, after the affair, shows him as awkward, aloof, and edgy, next when the affair is on the verge of ending he is more frantic and upset, and during the affair he is blissful and carefree, or so he thinks anyway. The climactic moment where Jerry unburdens his passion for Emma is as forceful as a speeding train. It's a cinematic exchange with profound and sophisticated use of words as he gazes deeply into her eyes, but it leaves a wallop.
Ben Kingsley's Robert is harder to measure because he radiates the impression of a man who bottles up his emotions. They seem to explode during the beginning "silent" fight with Emma, but proof of the way he suppresses his pain can be heard when he describes walking alone in Venice. Robert reacts to Emma and Jerry during various scenes as if he is always one step ahead of them. He's playing a game with them too, and despite the anguish of knowing what they're concealing, he presents himself as icy and intelligent. Kinglsey's memorable close-ups where his eyes grow wider with a piercing stare are unnerving, especially since we know what he knows, while Jerry and Emma are often times guessing or tiptoeing around his words.
Patricia Hodge might not strike everyone's fancy as Emma, but then again, this is not about how stunning Emma is. The message lies in the title. We need only believe that Jerry is head over heels for her. Helen Mirren was originally cast as Emma, but producer Sam Spiegel deemed her butt to be too big for the part. Now we must spend the whole movie wondering if Mirren's derriere would have distracted us. Emma's control over Jerry as the ordeal rewinds is fascinating. Even 2 years after their relationship has dissolved, she still aims to manipulate him and re-fuel her aplomb from his jealousy. To grasp Emma one must learn to read between the lines.
A rare alternate movie poster.
Does Jerry whole-heartedly long for Emma, or is it just a passing fulfillment of spontaneity? Is Robert fragile and broken, or simply furious with rage? And does Emma love one of these men, both, or neither? Betrayal does not answer these questions straight on, but we can't know every nook and cranny. The viewer knows the secrets, but not all the real emotions beneath the façade of the characters. That is not as easy to penetrate. The composed and reticent affectations of Robert, Jerry, and Emma is where Betrayal captures inherent human nature. Perhaps the aforementioned questions can be answered, but perhaps this trio is a blend of what they ask. Only they truly know, or do they? Remember that they are moving forward without fully comprehending their own mental states, whereas we judge them according to what will transpire in their futures.
Betrayal features a respectable score from Dominic Muldowney, whose music only darts in for the year-to-year transitions. It is a deft combination of British period piece and film noir sounds. David Jones and cinematographer Mike Fash have constructed a stagy picture, sticking to single rooms and shots. This is not a flaw because Betrayal can't and does not necessitate an expansive universe. Putting a face to Jerry's wife Judith or the enigmatic writer that Jerry discovered might lead to disappointment and would threaten to damage the dynamic between our subdued threesome.
Harold Pinter wrote Betrayal about the extramarital affair he took part in for 7 years with television presenter Joan Bakewell, who was married to producer-director Michael Bakewell, while Pinter was married to actress Vivien Merchant. It would later inspire the Seinfeld episode called "The Betrayal." Pinter designed his story so that we observe the events from this backward perspective. Memento employed reverse chronology as just a device, which is fine, but Pinter aims for an examination of an ordinary affair from the end to the beginning. The arrangement makes artificiality impossible. If any contrivances existed, they would be obvious and transparent. He forces us to be aware of the deceptions, vulnerabilities, and consequences of the cheating right away, acknowledging why it was a mistake, and how it started as a fleeting crush.