May 31, 2009

The Caretaker

When Harold Pinter the British playwright won the nobel prize for literature a couple of years ago it was less for his expletive laden denounciations of Bush and Blair than for works like the Caretaker. Filmed in the early 60s and financed by several of the great and good in British culture (Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers and Noel Coward amongst them) the play made the transition to cinema well. What it concerns, as ever with a Pinter play, is not entirely clear. On a snowy night in London a tramp is picked up by a lonely man, Aston, who invites him home to stay. The tramp, Davies, sleeps at Aston's that night and is surprised in the morning by Mick, Aston's brother, and the actual owner of the house in which Aston lives. The three men then circle each other for the rest of the film- Aston with his hopes of constructing a shed at the bottom of the garden, Davies with his hopes of getting to Sidcup to find his papers and rebuild his life and Mick who longs to turn the house into luxury appartments and transcend his Hackney upbringing to become a cultured man. As ever with Pinter the play is also about power- as Davies attempts to play Mick, the 'normal' brother against Aston who has had mental difficulties in the past.

Critics and commentators have covered those aspects of the film and play well enough and also argued that it is part, along with Samuel Beckett's work, of a movement towards the theatre of the absurd. In that sense they have brought to the play a consciousness of its timelessness- they have taken the Hackney of the sixties out of the play and brought the play into the modern era. That approach is completely sound and there are good reasons to read the play as about a contest for power. Davies ultimately is defeated because he misunderstands the fact that Mick will never abandon Aston- he attempts to play the two off against each other and ends up creating an alliance between them to repudiate Aston's latest insane act, bringing Davies to the house and offering him shelter. Davies is excluded and thrown out onto the winter street to roam and wander and eventually one presumes, die alone. That defeat for him is an exile from sanctuary- the sanctuary that we have seen him in for the film, the sanctuary that Donald Pleasance conveys through a marvellous performance he fears he may be forced to leave.

Davies is always keen to concentrate on the fact he has worked in the past and Pinter's psychology of homelessness is acute. Davies feels ashamed of being homeless- assuming that when Aston asks him whether the bed is unusual and this is why he is restless that what Aston means is that he doesn't know how to sleep in a bed, he talks constantly of jobs he does and wants to do but never of his constant state of unemployment. Aston's psychology is as acute. I think Pinter here captures the dilemma of mental illness better than anyone I have ever seen on stage or screen manage it. What he does is tell us that Aston faces a dilemma between treatment that does not help, human beings who send him for treatment rather than opening up their faces and kindnesses to him and staying silent. Eventually Aston chooses to remain silent- to have visions but not to talk because he knows that to talk is to invite rejection- and so he concentrates on the lonely occupation of building the shed and seeks friendship with the one person, Davies, who he feels is as powerless as himself and therefore cannot threaten him. In this reading of the film, Mick, deus ex machina at the beggining and conclusion, is a guardian who cannot understand how to help what he guards. He cannot help Aston out of the dark night of the soul because it is implied, noone can. He has realised unlike their mother that Aston cannot be helped by doctors, all he can do is wait and expect a miracle.

Equally the play is about a period of time- all those comments relating to mental illness relate to that period of time rather than now. But the periodisation is important in other ways. Davies is a former soldier- he served, he tells us, in the colonies. He wants to go to Sidcup- and this is unstated- because it is the base of the Royal Artillery- Davies wants to get there to establish his true identity in a world in which his forged identity "Bernard Jenkins" has worn out its use. This is the world of Britain post world war two- post the era of mass military service- when a man like Davies, an 'old man' could wander as a veteran tramp through an England that had forgotten him. But it is also a world of squalor- its the world of Britain in decline, particularly economic decline. In a sense we have here a generational conflict alongside a personal one: Davies's strenght is ebbing, Astons' is too though he is a younger man- whilst Mick remains vital and strong- unpredictable and terrifying with his ability to surprise and his 'sense of humour'. Aston is predictable and steady- the epitome of the fifties- Davies damaged and poor- the forties, and Mick a representative of swinging London, an Austin Powers man. But of course given this is Pinter- we have those stereotypes twisted into bitterness, the forties man, a tramp, the man of the fifties a madman and the man of the sixties, delusional.

This is a great film- there is no question about that and with great performances to boot. Its intense and melancholy but it is also charming and thoughtful. The ending leaves us looking in like Davies upon the brotherly bond- we can concentrate on the intensity and warmth of the last smile between Mick and Aston as they throw the tramp out on the street or on Davies's fear as he is consigned to a life and death under Waterloo Bridge. Its up to us, whether we empathise with the tramp in the snow or the madman asleep calmly in his bed, Pinter as ever does not direct our sympathy or interpretation, he leaves us with the stage and the gaps between the words. Our task as in life is to supply the story that makes them make sense.