A MATTER OF INNOCENCE, its USA title, was Pretty Polly in England, after “Pretty Polly Barlow” a Noel Coward short story. Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse did the screenplay, Guy Green directed. Released in 1967, it grossed $1,600,000 in the States, placing 109th that year. The ever-acerbic Coward was disappointed with the film, but let’s dismiss Sir Noel’s invested rue: it’s always worth watching Hayley Mills and Trevor Howard, Indian superstar Shashi Kapoor (then 28) is very good and the vintage location shooting alone is of considerable value.
Twenty-one years old and life-stifled, London bakery clerk and wallflower ‘Polly Barlow’ (Mills) accompanies her insufferable snob of an aunt (Brenda de Banzie) on a trip to the Far East. When the old bat has the decency to overdo her gluttony and die in Singapore, Polly stays on. She spends some time with her uncle ‘Bob’ (Howard) the family’s black sheep, but is mostly squired about by tour guide ‘Amaz Hudeen’ (Kapoor), a sort of all-round “fixer”. He moves fast and she’s game. Post-seduction, he falls for Polly, and in the exotic atmosphere and newfound freedom she morphs from lawn moth to prized butterfly. There is ready competition for her fresh glow, and the racy nightlife beckons.
“I am what I am, and you are what you have become.”
Done on a considerable budget, it’s a curio of the times, hampered by an uneven tone that wobbles between nostalgia and cynicism, and mixes broad and unfunny slapstick with moments of sensitively conveyed drama.
This was Mills next picture after her transition to adulthood in The Family Way, continuing the logical procession which saw her ample talent intact, natural charm undiminished and now mature manner a new way for fans to remain smitten. Old salt Howard could effortlessly play a rowdy with a soft spot, and de Banzie lets fly with perfectly pitched noxiousness as the awful aunt. The most effective and winning performance comes from Kapoor, who renders the complicated Amaz sympathetic with shades of guile, dignity, humor and hurt.
The unbilled supporting character is Singapore itself, its heady mix of cultures just two years off independence. While any number of regional films have been made there (Bollywood predominating), only a handful of Western-financed movies of any distinction (The Virgin Soldiers, Saint Jack, Crazy Rich Asians) have been shot in the city. Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila always steal more attention.
Michel Legrand’s score tends towards lush mush, and Matt Munro warbles the forgettable title tune. Covering all the steam-heated sights, the cinematography was handled by Arthur Ibbetson (Whistle Down The Wind, The Chalk Garden, The Bounty). With Dick Patterson, Kalen Liu (‘Lorelei Chang’, Uncle Bob’s playmate), Peter Bayliss, Patricia Routledge. 102 minutes.