Dirty secrets

Revisiting Joseph Losey's 1963 classic, "The Servant".

Entering the house of his future master without knocking: that is what the servant in Joseph Losey’s film of the same name does in the opening sequence, thus inaugurating  the first collaboration between the blacklisted American director and Harold Pinter. The Servant (1963) is chamber-class drama shot through with a destabilising sexual tension. Tony (James Fox), a puerile aristocrat just back from Africa, hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his servant. Barrett will help him refurbish the townhouse where they both live, displaying an obliging and attentive character that masks a malicious ambiguity. He does not meet the approval of Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s fiancée, who will in fact try to have Barrett sacked after intuiting the sway that the servant  exercises over her boyfriend.

“For god’s sake!” exclaims Susan when Barrett intrudes on an intimate moment. “Restrict him to quarters,” she adds after the servant leaves. “Couldn’t he live out?” “No he couldn’t,” replies Tony brusquely. Something begins to crackle - sexual tension has already altered the established order of things. Things don’t get any better when Barrett’s alleged sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) moves in and seduces Tony who will then find her in bed with his alleged brother. But Vera and Barrett are just lovers. Disconcerted, Tony fires Barrett on the spot only to accept him back a while later - not as his servant any longer. After having first upset and then demolished the social and sexual divisions Tony and Susan hid behind, Barrett is now the maitre fou of the house.

The Servant is a refined psychological arabesque. Maintaining a carefully calibrated balance between literal and allegorical meaning, Losey realised an essay on class relations with the logic of a thriller. Delicately, if mercilessly, the film rubs away at the foundations of social status, debunking behavioural codes so as to expose the insecurity they disguise. Once deprived of their certainties and privileges, Tony and Susan fall into a despondent state of confusion; unable to react they allow Barrett subdue them without offering any resistance. Losey exploits the figurative potential of Pinter’s script. Rejecting all moralism, the cinemaphotography allows the sordid light of mistrust to pervade the mise-en-scene. Deforming mirrors and oblique reflections litter Tony’s apartment that will soon turn into his trap. Every gesture, every camera movement and exchange between the actors is charged with malice.

Back in 1963, when the closet was the only place for homosexuality to hide, Tony and Barrett's relationship must have seemed “peculiar”; today it is clearly charged with homoerotic attraction. But theirs is not exactly an affair, more a coercive class action that sees Barrett manipulating Tony’s sexuality for his own perfidious ends. An oblivious pawn in a game whose rules and goals remain obscure, Tony stares impotently as Barrett follows his dark, vengeful impulses. Moral corruption is an intrinsic part of the world Losey portrays - sex and power are its emanation and violence its result.

The claustrophobic spaces and exploitative relations are reminiscent of Fassbinder, but if, in the German director, there is a melodramatic despair, in Losey a lucid, cold detachment prevails. Bogarde’s performance is monumental, accompanying his every unpredictable and ruthless move with an iniquitous grin. While playing hide and seek with Tony, Barrett whispers in a devilish tone: “You have a dirty secret, you shall be caught” as his former master awaits him, terrified, behind a curtain. 

"The Servant" will be screened daily at BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 2 April.

Un-civil servant: Dirk Bogarde (Photograph: Getty Images)
BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit