Director: Jack Clayton
Screenplay: Neil Paterson, Mordecai Richler (uncredited)
Based on a Novel by: John Braine
Starring: Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret, Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit, Donald Houston, Hermione Baddeley, Allan Cuthbertson, Raymond Huntley, John Westbrook
Country: UK
Running Time: 118 min
Year:1958
BBFC Certificate: 12

Despite, or perhaps because of, its then-risque subject matter, Room at the Top made quite an impact when it was released back in 1959. Aided by the success of the source novel of the same name, the British film made a splash at the local box office and won numerous high-profile awards, including a couple of Oscars. It was so popular, that both the film and novel spawned sequels and a TV series, which itself had a spin-off film. The original story was remade into a TV movie in 2012 too. Not bad for a relatively low-key relationship drama.

More importantly, however, Room at the Top is widely regarded as the film that kickstarted the British New Wave. This was a movement that saw films emerge with a more frank depiction of sex, ‘tougher’ northern England settings and a more naturalistic approach in general.

Many of the New Wave films, Room at the Top included, fell under the banner of what are often dubbed ‘kitchen sink dramas’, which are somewhat of a British institution now. I must admit that, perhaps because of their proliferation in my home country, or more likely due to my growing up with more of a taste for the spectacular in cinema, I used to have a strong dislike for these films. I don’t think I ever really gave them a chance though and my tastes have very much changed over the years (though I still do love a good action movie), so I’m trying to make amends by catching up on more of these British classics.

As such, when I was offered the chance to review this seminal piece of ‘kitchen sink’ history, which is being added to Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics series, I took it.

Room at the Top opens with the arrival of Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) in the fictional town of Warnley, in West Yorkshire. He’s moved there for a job in the Borough Treasurer’s Department following a dull life in the factory town of Dufton (also fictional).

He sees this new move as a chance to work his way up in the world. He doesn’t believe his job is going anywhere as it is though. He is determined to marry his way into money and he soon picks his ‘target’ in Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Donald Wolfit).

Joe ignores the warnings that their opposing classes simply can’t mix, sweet-talking his way into Susan’s trust. However, he’s constantly pushed back by another of Susan’s suitors, the wealthy Jack Wales (John Westbrook), and her parents (Susan’s mother is played by Ambrosine Phillpotts). These attacks only add to Joe’s determination though.

However, a spanner is thrown into the works from a wholly different angle when Joe finds himself falling for Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman who’s unhappily married to the despicable George (Allan Cuthbertson).

It took me a little while to warm to Room at the Top but I was sold on it by the end. The class divide aspects are laid on a bit thick at first and this is a theme I’ve grown tired of in British films over the years. However, I could appreciate this was one of the earliest films to tackle the topic in such a tough, no-nonsense fashion. Plus, as the film moved on, I realised there was more to it than the simplified “upper classes/authority figures are bad” narrative films of this ilk can often follow.

The nuances came as the characters were further developed. A couple of these remain sadly one-dimensional (Jack Wales and Susan’s mum, in particular, are unreasonably villainous) but several of the others are more rounded. Susan’s father, for instance, originally hailed from a working-class background, so whilst he doesn’t want his daughter to be with Joe, he can sympathise with the young man and the pair have some strong scenes together. Joe himself was an odd one for me though. I initially disliked the character a great deal and felt this was holding me back from caring about his story. However, he eventually shows a more human side, though he remains rather unpleasant for the most part. As such, I was drawn to follow his foolish ‘quest’, even though I hated him.

Thankfully, Alice is much more sympathetic and her story is heartbreakingly poignant. She’s the heart and soul of the film and Signoret rightfully picked up a slew of major awards for her performance, including one of the film’s two Oscars. Without her, I would certainly not have rated the film as highly.

I was also impressed by the cinematography. When I think of kitchen sink dramas, I usually think of them as having a rough, ‘gritty’ visual style designed to look as unvarnished and natural as possible. However, perhaps due to this being so early in the cycle, Room at the Top is handsomely shot, with some carefully constructed moving shots and great use of depth. The Bradford and Halifax locations are well-utilised too.

Also refreshing is the film’s frankness, particularly concerning sex. Though the lack of graphic lovemaking or nudity makes it seem fairly chaste today, the film was considered very racy for the time and was even given an X rating in the UK (it’s now a 12, which is telling). Commentator Jo Botting, from reading the shooting script and director Jack Clayton’s notes, believes they may have even shot two versions of many of the lines to protect themselves against the censors, in case some dialogue was deemed unsuitable.

Most of the cast are strong. As mentioned, Signoret impressed me the most, but Harvey is very good too, perfectly capturing both the venom and charm of the character. The Lithuanian-born actor reportedly wasn’t taken seriously as a screen performer until this and rightfully went on to enjoy a successful career in theatre and film before his untimely death in 1973. Harvey’s and some of the other “by ‘eck love” accents aren’t entirely convincing (I’m from West Yorkshire myself so know how it should sound) but the film does a better job of presenting the north than many that preceded it.

So, whilst Room at the Top isn’t particularly subtle and has to compete with decades of similar films that followed, extra credit must be granted for its great influence on British cinema. It still makes an impact too, aided by two very strong central performances and a refreshingly frank and tough approach for the era.

Film:

Room at the Top is being released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on 11th March as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics series. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks wonderful with pin-sharp details, a natural, light grain and rich contrast levels. The audio is crisp and clear too, other than one or two brief odd-sounding lines that I imagine are as originally mixed.

Special Features

– NEW Delena Kidd on Room at the Top
– Extract from BEHP Audio interview with Sir John Woolf
– Audio Commentary with Jo Botting
– Audio Commentary with Neil Sinyard
– Behind the Scenes stills Gallery
– Trailer

The two commentaries have been available on previous releases but they’re more than welcome here. Jo Botting’s track is incredibly detailed and well-researched. She often discusses how the film compares to the book and the original script. She also briefly runs over the careers of some of the cast and crew. It’s an excellent commentary.

Neil Sinyard takes a more analytic approach in his commentary, making for a welcome contrast. He makes some thought-provoking points, though I found the other track slightly more engaging, if I had to choose between the two.

Producer Sir John Woolf talks about how he and his brother James picked up the rights for the book, as well as the process of selecting the lead actress. He goes on to talk about the battles they had with the censor and its reception on release.

In the one new extra included on the disc, Delena Kidd talks fondly of her time working on the film. It’s not a particularly in-depth piece, but it’s nice to get a first-hand account of the production.

So, whilst there’s little new material, there’s plenty here to appreciate and the disc would be much poorer without the commentaries. As such, on top of the fine transfer, the disc comes warmly recommended.

Disc/package:

Room at the Top - Studiocanal
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