THE LOSS OF INNOCENCE is the US-release title for this unsung British drama, known in England as The Greengage Summer, written by Rumer Godden from her novel of that title, directed by Lewis Gilbert. Loosely based off an incident in her own (adventurous) life, Godden’s 1957 book was set in the 1920s, but the screenplay moves the story up to 1961, when the film was released. *
On summer vacation in France, their mother hospitalized, four British children are taken in by a hotel. Skeptical owner ‘Zizi’ (Danielle Darrieux) doesn’t want them around, but her attentive British lover ‘Eliot’ (Kenneth More) sways the stay. Squiring them around the countryside in his sportscar, he charms the kids, especially 16-year-old ‘Joss’ (Susannah York, 21, 4th film, first major role). The cheerful but rather secretive Eliot beguiles the blossoming Joss, and finds himself casually (and obviously) taken with her naturalistic beauty (More was 46, the age-dif bugaboo left for us to fret over). Meanwhile, jealousy rings them, from the suspicious Zizi, off her scorned lesbian ex-lover ‘(Claude Nollier), out of impressionable 13-year old ‘Hester’ (Jane Asher) and in a surly delinquent of a bellboy (Raymond Gérôme). With so many competing passions, secrets and discoveries, things inevitably spin out of control.
Like many dramas of the period, some scenes suffer from sudden reversals of behavior (writing issues that always make the actors carry the weight), but overall it’s an offbeat and intriguing set-up, the cast is excellent, and the lovely locations make for a nostalgic travelogue. Fine cinematography from the great Frederick Young takes in the unhurried, uncluttered atmosphere in & around Épernay in the Champagne region. The countryside hotel overlooks the Marne.
Darrieux is arresting as ever, young Asher accomplished. York gets a full-range dramatic workout with her conflicted coquette (beware, pretty much to-die-for) and More is allowed to shed his usual uniforms and play a complex, well-rounded fellow whose skills lend themselves to cross-purposes of decency and deceit. L’mour can get the best of the best of us, and often bring out the worst in the rest. Frank, forgiving, theme-rich, oddly overlooked movie is ripe for rediscovery. 99 minutes, with Elizabeth Dear, Richard Williams and Maurice Denham.
* Rumer Godden (1907-1998), a child of Britain’s Indian Raj, independent and liberated survivor of scandal, sickness and revolt, authored 60 books, nine of them becoming films including the renowned Black Narcissus and The River. Lewis Gilbert had recently directed the affable More in Reach For The Sky, Paradise Lagoon and Sink The Bismarck! He had the actor doff some pounds to be a more svelte, convincing swain (they originally wanted Cary Grant). He later felt Dirk Bogarde should have played ‘Eliot’, saying More “was somehow too normal, it didn’t quite work… you could well imagine a girl of fifteen or sixteen falling in love with Dirk” (yuck). York, though quite fond of the picture reflected “I didn’t think that was a totally successful film. I always felt that Dirk Bogarde was the person for the Kenneth More role. It needed someone with a touch of dark mystery and Dirk would have been perfect.” (again, ick). More, for his part, considered it his favorite movie, recalling York “was just twenty-one and an adorable creature…it was one of the happiest films on which I have ever worked.” I can only hazard guessing what 16-year old girls in Britain may have thought was seductive in 1961 but I’d rather be in the convivial company of Kenneth More over that of a diffident Dirk Bogarde any day. Since I’m not a girl, 16 or English, I can state unequivocally that Susannah York in the 1960s was sexy enough to melt steel or sink any Bismarck that got close enough to dock.