A car crash late one evening in the English countryside signals the end of a story which director Joseph Losey’s film will via flashback reveal, layer by tense layer, what brought us to this harrowing moment. Back in time we go. Films which start at the end and work backwards always seem to have poignancy linear films struggle to attain; such is the way with Accident.
Bringing to mind the similar car crash which opens the wonderful Les choses de la Vie (1970), it’s certainly a dramatic way to begin any film; questions a-plenty arise. Attention grabbing as this start is, as we delve into events which preceded the tragedy the drama shifts from the physical very much to the psychological realm. For Harold Pinter’s script takes us deep into a world of internal conflict, resentment and petty jealousy. The putative accident of the title is merely a springboard to an exquisite psychodrama.
As might be expected Pinter’s script is terse as it is sparse; it’s not so much what the characters say, rather what they might be thinking that provides such a visceral experience for the viewer. It’s virtually impossible for an audience not to fill the awkward gaps and pauses themselves, assuming as they do the identity of the film’s protagonists. Genius? Not sure, but this film demands more than just superficial involvement. Blink and you just might miss a glance or other nuance.
Dirk Bogarde is simply wonderful as enigmatic university don Stephen, a man deep into mid-life and with seemingly everything one could desire: career, wife, children, large house etc. It’s a wonderfully understated performance full of internal angst and self-doubt. Stephen watches with interest – perhaps jealousy, certainly yearning – the blossoming relationship between two of his students, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) and William (Michael York). One suspects that the professor feels life passing him by as he observes the flirtations of this handsome couple. (The beautiful, leggy Sassard would abandon her acting career shortly after this film upon marriage into the Lancia car dynasty.)
Stephen it was who had gone to the aid of the victims of the car crash; the victims had been Anna and William – on their way presumably to visit this detached, somewhat repressed academic in his elegant country house. Why? Was there a reason for this evening visit? We don’t know, nor shall we discover a reason. It’s this very plot device that causes some criticism of the film. Critics rightly wonder whether it was necessary or just gratuitous. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
The main action of the film takes place some time before the crash – several months perhaps. It’s a hot English summer in the city of Oxford and it must be said the cinematography is a sheer delight to behold. The colours are more vibrant than any other film you care to name; the actors are flushed with the sun’s warmth; the yellow and orange of the flowers are just so vivid. If nothing else Accident is an orgy of visual delight. It just looks so damn good, the endless postcard blue sky, the green fields blanching under hot skies and summer enthusing the veins like cocaine. Exquisite.
Into this idyllic setting comes Stephen’s fellow don Charley played with rakish understatement by Stanley Baker three years after his breakthrough role in Zulu and with those horn-rimmed glasses every inch an unassuming Clark Kent. With his easy charm Charley is likely the man the more introspective Stephen would choose to be. Indeed, it transpires that Charley is having an affair with the delectable Anna right under the nose of the rather innocent and cherubic William – Michael York looking and sounding more like an altar boy than usual here, if that was at all possible.
Supressing his own desires, Stephen assists his philandering colleague’s conquest of Anna by providing a bed; it’s almost a form of self-torture for this extreme introvert. One of the film’s dominant motifs is indeed the human propensity towards unfulfillment as Stephen teeters on the edge of losing it; like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice Stephen feels adrift from the world but knows not why. In fact, the only character in this film who approaches anything resembling equilibrium is the cuckolded, aristocratic William – a nice touch of irony.
Some commentators bemoan what they feel is the slow pace of Accident; but in my estimation this is a strength rather than a weakness allowing the claustrophobia of this cast of middle-class malcontents to simmer gently away. For this is a fine wine of a film, one that mysteriously has dropped under the radar of all but the most dedicated of film connoisseurs. Sure, if The Matrix or Gone in Sixty Seconds is your thing you’re almost certainly going to struggle with something this subtle, this refined.
By now the reader might have guessed that this particular reviewer is rather smitten with Accident. Not arf. Not only is the drama top notch, the stunning cinematography is a triumph: from shadowy tennis courts at dusk, sun bleached cricket fields and acres of glorious countryside shimmering midst an Oxfordshire heatwave, Accident might just leave an indelible mark on your mind like it has on mine.
The Albion of the imagination. Paradise Lost.