Director: Henry Cass
Screenplay: J.B. Priestley
Starring: Alec Guinness, Beatrice Campbell, Kay Walsh, Grégoire Aslan, Bernard Lee, Sid James, Ernest Thesiger
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Alec Guinness was one of Britain’s finest actors. He’s famous to those aged forty and under as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy, but there’s much more to his career than that, with memorable roles and wonderful performances spanning 50 years. He was one of David Lean’s go-to actors, featuring in six of his films, won great acclaim as George Smiley in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People TV series, and was also a key figure in the great Ealing comedies of the 40s and 50s. Of the latter, I’m particularly fond of the quartet of Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, all featuring Guinness. Between the first two of those titles he made another film, not at Ealing Studios but in a similar vein, called Last Holiday. I must admit, I was more aware of the loose 2006 remake of the same name, starring Queen Latifah, but seeing Guinness’ involvement I was intrigued when offered a chance to review Studiocanal’s forthcoming Blu-ray release of the film.
Based on a screenplay by the great J.B. Priestley, Last Holiday sees Guinness play George Bird, a lonely fellow that sells agricultural equipment for a living. On a visit to his doctor, he learns he has a rare condition known as Lampington’s disease, meaning he has only weeks to live. With no close living relatives or good friends, Bird decides to cash in his life savings and blow it all on one last holiday at a posh resort he’d not normally be able to afford.
At the resort, aided by the purchase of some finely tailored suits, he attracts the attention of the wealthy residents. Not being a familiar face and keeping quiet about his background, there’s an air of mystery about him. Due to his impending demise, Bird is quite frank to everyone he meets there when they chat to him. Though this might normally offend, it actually helps better the lives of these rich socialites and everyone grows very fond of Bird. This popularity, on top of some good luck, causes this final jaunt to give Bird the sort of breaks he’d longed for all his life, including finding love and being offered ideal and very well-paid employment. However, due to the circumstances, he finds it deeply frustrating and painfully ironic rather than joyful. As he changes the lives of those around him, perhaps it might all be worthwhile in the end though.
Like the best of Ealing, Last Holiday is a wry and charming black comedy. There’s a touch more melancholy here though, due to the subject matter, and it actually has some thoughtful things to say about humanity. Its key message is that people should fill the time rather than idly pass it. If something isn’t working then you should fix it yourself rather than wallow in misery over your predicament, expect someone else to sort it out or wait for a bit of luck to change your fortunes. Perhaps this theme comes from post-war attitudes of the time, calling people to ‘pull themselves together’, but it still feels relevant and the film is surprisingly affecting.
It’s not a drab philosophical treatise though, it’s still a comedy of sorts, if not a particularly raucous one. Keeping the humour buoyant, among the occasionally bleak subject matter, is Priestley’s wonderful script, which is filled with witticisms. For example, on asking to keep both a smile and a stiff upper lip by his doctor, Bird replies “how do you keep smiling if you’ve got a stiff upper lip?” Another good one comes in the exchange; “what a horrible cigarette case”, “I’m a horrible man”.
Helping these sharp lines hit their mark is a fine cast of British character actors, most notably Guinness of course. Around the time, he was known for some quite showy performances, particularly his 9-role pièce de résistance in Kind Hearts and Coronets, but here Guinness is understated and restrained. As such, I feel it might be among the finest, or at least most underrated, performances of his great career. There’s a lot for the character to deal with and Guinness keeps it lying just behind his eyes, avoiding overdramatising or fully hiding his predicament. Elsewhere, you’ve got legends like Bernard Lee, Sid James and Ernest Thesiger providing enjoyable side characters, so the cast as a whole is very strong.
Cinematically speaking it’s perhaps nothing special, with no showy or stylish flourishes. However, director Henry Cass does a fine job of keeping an even tone and a gentle but engrossing flow. There’s a small fantastical touch too, with the recurring fiddler/violinist figure appearing at key points during the film. It’s never referred to in the dialogue but made quietly clear through editing and reaction shots, allowing for a moving but enigmatic air to the end of the film.
Overall, it’s a beautiful little film that gently examines what it means to be alive. It asks the audience not to merely sit back and enjoy themselves but dig in and work for what they want. It’s about the strength of feeling satisfied that you’ve done your bit by the end too. With a sharp wit and a touching but never saccharine tone, it’s a real gem that deserves to stand tall against Guinness’ other, more popular work.
Last Holiday is being released by Studiocanal on Digital Download, Blu-ray, DVD on 9th March. The picture and audio quality are strong for a film of its age.
The Blu-ray and DVD both include:
– NEW: Interview With Cultural Historian Matthew Sweet
– Personalities: J.B. Priestley (1944)
– Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
The Matthew Sweet interview provides some interesting background information about J.B. Priestley. The period Priestley film, however, is hilariously old-fashioned, with a chirpy voiceover spelling everything out for the viewer unnecessarily. It’s amusing then, but hardly illuminating.