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1983, dir: David Jones.
Adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play of the same name.

The film starts in silence. Couples are leaving a party at a smart London address, exiting the white building, passing beyond the black railings into the night. The camera approaches from across the street and hovers at the front window, looking in. The host couple are tidying up and arguing more and more fiercely. The woman slaps the man. The man slaps the woman. A sleepy child, woken presumably by their voices, enters and is comforted, briskly, unconvincingly by the woman who is still angry, whose cheek is stinging.

Time runs backward from this tableau of final predicament and the people speak. There are three of them, three actors: Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge and Ben Kingsley. The characters have names, of course, but I’ll refer to them by the names of the actors because they are famous, virtuoso, and, in keeping with the piece, the actors do not entirely disappear into their parts. We see their choices, Adultery, Nabokov said, is a very commonplace way of rising above the commonplace.their thinking. As is the way with Pinter’s dialogue, there is a distance between them and what they are saying. Words are advanced, repeated, considered. They are used to persecute, cajole, remind, comfort, insult, seduce and deceive. When the actors are not speaking they are each alone. Jeremy Irons is nervous, vulnerable, unstable, his gaze flickering. Patricia Hodge is very composed, lost inside herself, her surface as smooth and sad as graveyard sculpture. Ben Kinglsey is angry, peremptory, mocking, his dark eyes hard and bright. It is he who has been betrayed. His wife, Patricia Hodge, has had a long affair with his best friend, Jeremy Irons, and he has known about this for a long time, much longer than Jeremy Irons thinks he has. It is this knowledge, perhaps, (this and his own history of extra-marital affairs, freely admitted to, not explored), that give him his gleam of amused and aggressive self-possession.

Adultery, Nabokov said, is a very commonplace way of rising above the commonplace. Pinter’s reverse chronology is what makes this ordinary story engrossing. We watch the damage being undone in stages, the characters getting younger, fresher, until finally we’re at the moment after which everything goes wrong, or rather, for the viewer, the moment before which everything has already gone wrong. The grim future has happened in the past. I wonder if there’s something palliative about this structure, something absolving. Pinter himself was a betrayer, the play apparently arose from his own long affair with Joan Bakewell. His play makes the future irrevocable all along. Ascribing guilt at the moment of initiation is beside the point. Nevertheless it is with this scene of inception that the film climaxes. Our final scrutiny is given to Jeremy Irons declaring his love to Patricia Hodge upstairs at a party. The scene is uncomfortable and in a several ways, dissatisfying. Is desire, is emotion enough of a reason to instigate all this pain?

You’re beautiful. I’ve been watching you all night . . . You’re incredible.
You’re drunk.

Why is this happening? There seems so little reason for it. Jeremy Irons’ speeches are so excessive and unoriginal. Pinter exposes this, yoking dead language to live feeling:

You’re lovely. I’m crazy about you. All these lines I’m saying, don’t you see they’ve never been said before. I’m crazy about you.

Patricia Hodge watches his weird transport as we do, wondering, unsure.

I’m lost. You’re wonderful.

As exhilarated as Jeremy Irons is, however triumphantly he finally grasps and kisses Patricia Hodge, we are in a bleak place. This is delusional love as Freud dispraises it in ‘Being In Love And Hypnosis’, the ‘sexual over-estimation’ We love and injure ourselves and others all the time. of the loved object that annihilates the lover’s ego. (Jeremy Irons is here in complete contrast to Ben Kingsley’s smiling, desolate wholeness, the man who doesn’t love). According to Freud, ‘traits of humility . . . and self-injury occur in every case of being in love.’ Jeremy Irons’ first betrayal is of himself, this self-injury that spreads out to hurt others. But he can’t help it. None of us can. We love and injure ourselves and others all the time. The thrill of this film – and it is thrilling – is seeing that understood and played out by actors of incredible skill. It is adult and unconsoling and beautifully wrought. ■

Comments (127)

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  1. anabil

    Mon Aug 25 09:18:11 BST 2014

    This is kind of an unusual post. The title appears to be in another language but the rest of the essay is in almost perfect english. it seems to me that it should be one or the other.

  2. J

    Wed Apr 03 21:49:31 BST 2013

    In ‘Betrayal’ we observe the desperate betrayal of self, of friendship, of marriage, but I believe there is another betrayal – the betrayal of Love.

    Where is actual Love in all of this? I see desire, but where is Love? I ask this as much about the play, as I do of our own society – Love, actual Love, now seems so rare, so little believed in.

    Can it be true, that Love is slowly and surreptitiously being reasoned out of existence by such as the likes of Freud? I hope with all my heart that this is not the case.

    Perhaps we can we only ever be in Love - if we believe in Love.

  3. J

    Wed Aug 28 10:02:00 BST 2013

    Dear John (16:16)

    From a female perspective, I think Irons is wonderful in the role and – cuts a great romantic figure! I feel he conveys the passion, anguish and confusion of being in love, very convincingly.

    Although we may each feel and express love differently, perhaps the most important thing is; not so much how we love – but that we love - and love fully.


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  5. John King

    Tue Mar 12 16:16:30 GMT 2013

    Originally launched this comment with a long account of how bad an actor I think Jeremy Irons is, and why. Since this boils down to being distracted by his technique it seemed simpler just to point that out and delete the original comment. So I did. I don't find his performance good. It tramples on and destroys the tension in Pinter's script. That's doubly a pity because Patricia Hodge is a revelation in exactly the way you point out. She has qualities of stillness and realism that eluded her later in her career.

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