The Criterion Collection Review | A Taste of Honey
The generation to be raised in the post-war milieu was a generation marked by disaffection, alienation, and confusion. It was a generation of people who were experiencing a deep set of complex adult emotions but were never equipped with the language or the context to identify them. All of a sudden, there was an entire generation of outsiders, unable to relate to the modern template of happy living – a template that couldn’t even be correctly defined by their parents. This was especially pronounced in England, a nation known for emotional obfuscation, repression, and a simple social habit of changing the subject whenever proper emotions were brought up.
Tony Richardson’s 1961 film A Taste of Honey (available from The Criterion Collection on August 23) came out right at the growing crest of this zeitgeist, which saw a great deal of art, theater, and film-skewing toward a stripped-down aesthetic. This film may be the cinematic birth of what we now call “kitchen sink” realism, a style-cum-genre that depicts lower-class people living in a grinding (and relatable) struggle to make ends meet. Dingy apartments and back alleys and buses. No simple answers, no escape, and a direct confrontation of the economic realities of a modern impoverished British people. Kitchen sink realism featured no weeping martyrs or brave romantic souls. It dealt with real people, complete in their human complexity, their dumb choices, their damaging outbursts, their illogical desires, and their emotional honesty.
A Taste of Honey stars Rita Tushingham (from The Knack… And How to Get It) as Jo, an embittered schoolgirl with innocent eyes, and a deep vein of adolescent rage. Jo lives with her free-spirited (read: distant and irresponsible) mother Helen (Dora Bryan) whom she refers to by her first name. Dad has never been part of their lives. Jo and Helen drift from apartment to apartment, never making moves to remain permanent anywhere. Helen only focuses on dating whatever new buck enters her life, and Jo has finally reached the age to be confrontational and bratty about her mom’s bad habits. Jo eventually escapes into the arms of a visiting black sailor (Paul Danquah) who, in short, loves her and leaves her.
Before long, Jo has fled the non-support of her longing-to-be-absent mother and has moved into a dirty apartment with an unwanted pregnancy. She also begins slowly fostering a somewhat healthy – but most certainly co-dependent – relationship with a rejected gay man named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). Although the two of them aren’t really in love, they seem to resemble a family more than anything Jo has seen before.
A Taste of Honey is very much a film about frustration and fury. It’s about needing a certain degree of understanding, and not being able to find it in the arms of your parents. The relationship between Jo and Helen could be healthy – we see flashes of earnestness – but each of them is so ill-prepared for moments of substance, that they flee into callow insults and casual mockery. A Taste of Honey could serve as a more realistic and less fatalistic rendition of Rebel Without a Cause from six years previous. Both films explore the brick wall that has sprung up between generations, and how that wall may be unassailable. In Rebel, it’s because the parents are clueless. In Honey, it’s because the parents are just a mite too apathetic. In both, the young people can’t communicate what they need from the bottom of their souls. James Dean wails to the sky. Rita Tushingham stares, piercingly and with enormous eyes, into the quiet abyss of disappointment. She’s bloody marvelous.
In addition to its emotional dalliances, though, A Taste of Honey is socially daring in a way American films weren’t at the time. This is a film that deals with a slew of real-life social dramas: teen pregnancy, interracial relationships, homosexuality, divorced moms neglecting their children. The topics that would eventually trickle down into mawkish American TV after-school specials. Even to modern eyes, thanks to the film’s grounded and straightforward style, we can still appreciate just how revolutionary this film would have been in 1961.
Tony Richardson would eventually move on to direct Oscar-winning films like the oft-overlooked Tom Jones, and other notable Hollywood productions. Kitchen sink realism, meanwhile, would eventually be passed into the hands of masters like Mike Leigh. A Taste of Honey is raw and bitter, but, like its namesake, gives audiences a small bit of sweetness to carry with them. We need that one tiny soothing factor in life.
Top Image: British Lion Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.