Film Reviews

Women of Twilight (1952) – Film Review

When unmarried nightclub singer Vivianne (Rene Ray) sees her lover Jerry (Laurence Harvey) arrested for murder, just as she finds she is pregnant, she struggles to find anywhere to live in London. Whether it is the pregnancy or the known attachment to a suspected murderer, she is not the sort of person desirable as a tenant to the landladies of early-1950s England.

She finally finds a sympathetic host in Helen Allistair (Freda Jackson). Helen has taken in a number of pregnant women, and still hosts several young mothers, including Christine (Lois Maxwell, the original Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond series). As she settles in, she notices a higher-than-average mortality rate in the children, and some question as to whether the state even knows some of these children exist. Some mothers do leave for better lives, but many do not.

© StudioCanal.

Women of Twilight was the first British film to receive an X certificate in the UK (though it must be noted that it had existed only since the previous year, replacing the H Certificate). This is clearly, at least in part, a reflection of the morality of the time. The women are societal outcasts, treated in much the same way as ethnic minorities in this era: unable to rent, and considered morally inferior.

They find themselves grateful for any lodgings, even when Helen’s offer is barely habitable at times, with makeshift beds in rooms not meant for sleeping, and a nursery of sorts where it becomes clear the children are being neglected. Expectant mothers are sent off to the countryside to give birth, and at least once the idea is floated of selling a child to a childless couple. Where the mother keeps her child, she ends up in sub-standard conditions, yet unable to complain, as – by the mores of the time – the ice-cold landlady is doing them a favour, and able to turn on them and call them harlots at will.

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For much of the film’s running time, it feels like a time capsule, a curiosity. In much the same way as Brief Encounter cannot hit as hard in the modern era, the audience can just shake their heads at the regressive attitudes of 1952. As we reach the final act, however, the despicable nature of Jackson’s personality begins to reveal itself, and we learn the full horror of her character.

Despite being a relatively cheap looking, set-bound product, with performances that go from outstanding (Jackson and Ray), to decent (Maxwell), to laughably stiff (everyone else), it is genuinely arresting once it really gets underway. The British stiff-upper-lip style of the acting on display actually seems to help the end product, by giving everything a coldness that is somewhat unsettling.

© StudioCanal.

What we are left with is a film that will be of interest to the film historian, given it was the UK’s first X-rated film, and will be seen as art very much reflecting the society of the time. A mere ten years from The Beatles and Dr No, we have a film predicated on the twin ideas that a women getting involved with someone who then commits a crime is immoral herself in some way, and that single mothers can have no complaints if they live in squalor ( and if they do note mistreatment, it is unlikely that they will be believed, as they will be assumed to be of a lower quality of character in the first place).

The babies in this film will be adults now that have not long retired. It is extraordinary how far society – for all its continued foibles and prejudices – has come. So, Women of Twilight is for fans of the morality play (and this was adapted from the stage version in which Jackson and Ray played the same roles) or the British cinema of the 1950s. Other than that, it is far more interesting as a reflection of that era than it is as a film, but there are a couple of outstanding performances that are worth your time.

Women of Twilight is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital, in a new restoration from Studiocanal

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