How extraordinary that this ‘lost’ 1957 British melodrama is being reissued in the same week as Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’. It’s nigh-on impossible to imagine more different approaches to the same subject: the suffering of a woman in a loveless, controlling marriage. Where Antonioni’s approach is knowing, artful and sidelong, J Lee Thompson’s film is altogether more direct and, for the time, more challenging. And while the Italian definitely wins points for cinematic technique and psychological rigour, it’d be hard to argue that Thompson’s isn’t the more impactful, emotionally believable work.
Yvonne Mitchell is remarkable in the title role of Amy, a hapless, affectionate lower-middle-class housewife sent slightly stir-crazy by loneliness and (though it’s never spelled out) depression. Her husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) is a solid sort who loves his wife in his own way – but that hasn’t stopped him wandering into the arms of his secretary (Sylvia Sims).
Structured around Jim’s decision to tell his wife the truth and confined almost entirely to one small flat, there’s something theatrical about ‘Woman in a Dressing Gown’, particularly in the climactic scenes, as the performances threaten to tip from melodrama into mugging. But Thompson holds things in check: his direction is stark and fluid, using household objects – shelves, windows, banisters – to frame and ‘trap’ his characters.
But the most affecting aspect of the film is its sense of compassion: we’re never asked to condemn or condone, merely to understand. And at the centre of it all is Mitchell’s loveable, helpless, pitiful Amy, a truly memorable, one-of-a-kind creation.