Written by Kristen Lopez
A renaissance in British cinema erupted in the 1960s; known as the Free Cinema and instigated by directors Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and Karel Reisz, British cinema of the era espoused fantasy for gritty realism. These “kitchen sink dramas” dealt with the uncertainty and futility of living poor in England. Richardson’s own A Taste of Honey, out today on DVD and Blu via Criterion, depicts these issues with the faintest glimmer of a silver lining.
Jo (Rita Tushingham) is a young teen struggling to find some stability with her flight, man-obsessed mother (Dora Bryan). Jo soon falls for a kind black sailor, but once he goes away the girl strikes out on her own with her gay best friend Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). Things are complicated when Jo discovers she’s pregnant.
Poverty, restless youth, interracial romance, and a pregnancy. Richardson definitely gave us everything and the kitchen sink! A Taste of Honey, on the surface, illustrates the endless toil of being poor, and how the cycle continues with uneducated youth’s propensity for teen pregnancy. But this would belittle what, in actuality, is a tender-hearted tale of growing up and realizing that, sometimes children are more mature than their parents.
The enigmatic Rita Tushingham was selected from 2000 auditions, and her performance as Jo makes A Taste of Honey simply unforgettable. She’s extraordinary in her ordinariness. With her big eyes and tomboy haircut she’s a girl on the verge. But the verge of what? It’s doubtful even she knows. She’s feisty – mocking her mother’s new husband and criticizing her mother for being a doormat for a man – but that’s only because she’s aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy awaiting her. Upon discovering she’s pregnant, Jo finds herself on a threshold; she doesn’t want to be a woman, reverting back to a childlike need for her mother, but understands that “a little lust” leads to some big complications.
It’s impossible to believe a film about a poor girl, her black boyfriend and gay best friend would pass muster with the studios of 2016, let alone 1961. Richardson’s documentary style of filmmaking gives us a landscape devoid of promise and opportunities. It’s only in Jo and Geoffrey’s little flat that anything passing for life and happiness is found. They’re not making millions but they’re making it. Interestingly, outside their house is a gaggle of presumably neglected children, roaming around unsupervised, their children’s rhymes being the film’s sole soundtrack. Like them, Jo and Geoffrey are the evidence of a generation that no longer wishes to understand them, who would rather cast them out into the cold world than support them. Helen, Jo’s mother, only turns up when her husband leaves her, relying on Jo when men cannot.
Jo herself espouses the idea that men, and the romantic love that accompanies them, is an illusion. She’s unsure whether she loved Jimmy, the sailor she slept with, but realizes that it was a moment that will never come twice. Tushingham and the quiet Melvin are fantastic. The two understand each other in a way no one else does. “The dream is gone,” Geoffrey says. “But the baby’s real,” Jo replies. These two realize the consequences, and though Geoffrey isn’t responsible for the child in any way, his platonic love for Jo compels him to step up for the baby.
Criterion’s new 4K transfer renders this in crisp black and white, clean where the film itself depicts the dirtiness of society. Melvin and Tushingham give fascinating interviews that mine the depths of their characters and performances. There are also excerpts of interviews with director Tony Richardson and playwright Shelagh Delany.
British cinema isn’t just costume dramas and royalty. A Taste of Honey shows that being a teen in the Britain of the 1960s required growing up quickly, often with no help. This emotionally fraught story looks at life’s fragility, and how it’s up to the strength of our youth to build new walls.