“Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief” – Rediscovering ‘The Greengage Summer’ (UK 1961 – 99 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 28, 2015
“Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief” – Rediscovering ‘The Greengage Summer’ (UK 1961 – 99 mins)

Known in the US as ‘Loss of Innocence’, Lewis Gilbert’s ‘The Greengage Summer’ is a colourful coming-of-age drama with an absorbing central mystery. Shot among the beautiful country landscapes in the champagne region of France, I think it’s a gentle and engaging movie with touches of humour and intrigue.

When their mother is taken ill while on a French vacation, it’s up to 16 year old Joss (Susannah York) to be carer to her three siblings. Stranded at the Hotel Oeillets run by Mademoiselle Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), charismatic stranger; Eliot (Kenneth More) pleads with Zisi to let them stay. She agrees, but finds herself jealous when Eliot takes it upon himself to chaperon the children, not realizing that Joss is starting to fall for him. It gradually transpires that, as charming and kind as Eliot is, this handsome yet secretive gentleman may not be all that he appears.

I’m surprised that this movie has been regarded as a failure, as I think it’s a minor gem and a favourite of many people. It can be overly dramatic at times, but it is also wonderfully performed by the superior cast.

Playing younger than her real age, 21 year old Susannah York had her first memorable role here and is marvellous as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, feeling her first pangs of love. Kenneth More was the perfect choice for the role of the charming yet mysterious Eliot, and loved this movie saying it was one of the happiest productions he’d ever worked on. It is also my own favourite Kenneth More performance. French icon Danielle Darrieux was very good as elegant hotel owner Mademoiselle Zisi, and 14 year old Jane Asher debuts as York’s younger sister Hester, a keen photographer who takes a shine to Eliot. Elizabeth Dear and Richard Williams play the youngest children, Vicky and Wilmouse, and David Saire has a prominent role as a snooping hotel employee.

Director Lewis Gilbert had earlier worked with Kenneth More on ‘Reach for the Sky’ (’56), ‘The Admirable Crichton’ (’57) and ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ (’60). A talented filmmaker, he would go on to make ‘Alfie’ (’66), ‘Shirley Valentine’ (’89) and the James Bond movie’s ‘You Only Live Twice’ (’67), The Spy Who Loved Me’ (‘77) and ‘Moonraker’ (’79). American screenwriter Howard Koch adapted Rumer Godden’s 1958 novel, and the gorgeous photography was by expert cinematographer Freddie Young, who would go on to win Academy Awards for a trio of David Lean epics; ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (‘62), ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (‘65) and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ (‘70). The theme tune by composer Richard Addinsell is also wonderful and fits the mood perfectly.

The movie has a number of standout dramatic moments. One memorable scene which begins the mystery is when a nervy Eliot reacts badly to having his photograph taken outside of Notre Dame by one of the children. He blames his reaction on superstition, but of course the viewer begins to suspect that maybe Eliot is not who he appears to be.

‘The Greengage Summer’ is sensitively performed by the entire cast, and is both lovingly filmed and intelligently written. It captures the innocence of childhood perfectly and, by adding an absorbing mystery plot, creates a timeless minor classic that can benefit from repeated viewings.

This post was written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *