Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: Peter Nichols
Based on a Play by: Peter Nichols
Starring: Alan Bates, Janet Suzman, Peter Bowles, Sheila Gish, Joan Hickson
Running Time: 106 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The latest under-seen curiosity to be given a new lease of life by Indicator is A Day in the Life of Joe Egg. Based on a play by Peter Nichols, which in turn is based on his own life experiences, it charts a day in the life of a married couple, Bri (Alan Bates) and Sheila (Janet Suzman), who care for their daughter Jo, who is almost completely brain-dead (for want of a more scientific or PC description). Being unable to speak or voluntarily move for herself, the couple have to do everything for her, with no return of love. As such, it's a tough life they lead, and the only way they get through it is to use humour. They create a personality for Jo and speak for her, as well as make blackly comic jokes about their situation throughout the day.
However, Bri has had enough. He's reached the conclusion that all this work they put in to look after Jo is for nothing and she should be put away somewhere for professional care, or possibly just be allowed to die. Sheila however, hasn't given up hope that Jo's abilities may improve by some miracle and refuses to cast her away just to make their lives more comfortable.
It was and, to be honest, still is bold subject matter for a film. There aren't many films that deal with care for someone with that level of physical/mental illness and particularly not in such an honest and blackly comic fashion. Most Hollywood films that deal with illness or disability use it to offer messages of hope or merely to wring tears out of an audience, but this is no feel good film or weepie. Instead it's brutally frank about the subject matter. You can tell that the writer, Nichols, had lived in that situation himself (his daughter was brain-dead and they looked after her until she died aged 11) as someone who hadn't would never be able to tackle the topic in the same way.
Speaking of someone not in that situation, the film brings in two more main characters in the second half of the story, when two friends, Freddie (Peter Bowles) and Pam (Sheila Gish) come for an evening visit. They nicely represent the common view and treatment of the mentally disabled, allowing for some intriguing debate and squirm-inducing satire on the particularly British way of facing the situation. Freddie puts on a fake smile, offers forced consolation and tries to give advice to the couple who have clearly had years to weigh up their options, whereas Pam is uncomfortable about it all and doesn't want to see Jo because she doesn't fit into her sugar-coated 'attractive' view of the world.
I found the latter half particularly strong because of this thought-provoking perspective. The first half was rather hit and miss though. Watching how the couple cope with their unusual situation is fascinating and the mixture of fantasy, flashback and reality used in this section is inventive (if a little confusing), but I found Bates quite annoying. I love the idea of using humour to get through their grim lives, but Bates' non-stop foolery is too much and grated with me. I found I much preferred his quieter, darker moments later on and Suzman gives a more consistently strong performance. She delivers some of the more powerful scenes when we're allowed to see a little more sadness behind the jokes. Joan Hickson provides an enjoyable supporting role too, as Bri's insufferable mother.
Overall, it's a thought-provoking, refreshingly frank and utterly unique film, that deserves to be better known. It took a while to hook me in, as Bates got on my nerves, but by the end I found the film fascinating and powerful without milking out tears.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is being re-released on 28th August by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their Indicator label in the UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both excellent.
Powerhouse have also included plenty of special features with the set. These include:
- Audio commentary by director Peter Medak
- New interview with actor Janet Suzman
- New interview with playwright and author Peter Nichols
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
- Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Marcus Hearn, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film
The commentary with Medak and interview with Suzman are both worth a listen and look, but I found the interview with Nichols most interesting as the autobiographical aspects of the play are fascinating to hear more about. The booklet is as excellent as ever too.