J Lee Thompson's Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) was a kitchen-sink movie before its time. Though a prize winner at the Berlin Festival, this tale of marital strife on a London council estate was soon eclipsed by Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning et al.
Adapted for the screen by Ted Willis from his own television play, it was regarded by some Fifties critics as an ill-conceived attempt to make a British counterpart to the rash of US films and TV dramas (many written by Paddy Chayefsky) dealing with the lives of "ordinary people" in a realistic and sympathetic manner. To play his council-estate protagonists, Thompson enlisted a pair of distinguished stage actors, both with Old Vic backgrounds.
Anthony Quayle is Jimbo, the taciturn, middle-aged clerk in a timber office who has started an affair with a secretary. Yvonne Mitchell is his devoted wife, Amy, the "woman in the dressing gown", a dishevelled figure who presides over a cluttered flat. Amy represents domesticity at its most cloying. Georgie (Sylvia Syms), the secretary, is her antithesis: young, sensual but prim and moralistic too.
There weren't many other British actresses of the 1950s who could have played the "other woman" as well as Syms. She isn't an obvious sex symbol like, say, Diana Dors, who would have risked making Georgie into a caricature. Nor is she the vapid ingénue with the perfect Home Counties accent who so often popped up in British films of the era. Georgie has relatively few lines and yet Syms brings both pathos and repressed eroticism to her role as the demure but strong-willed and very English femme fatale, forever enjoining "Preston" (as she calls Quayle) to "tear up roots" and begin a new life with her.
With its references to "groovy" Chris Barber music, Woman in a Dressing Gown has an arch, self-conscious air. Nonetheless, as a study of a marriage coming apart, it works surprisingly well. Jimbo is painfully repressed. Georgie (first seen in a radiant close-up) is not only the object of his lust, but the woman who will enable him to re-invent himself... just as long as he can discard his wife. Syms somehow makes a character who could easily have seemed a brattish homewrecker both glamorous and sympathetic.
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