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Film Review: Sweet William (1980)

Jenny Agutter has had a very, very long career. However, aside from schoolgirl parts in Walkabout or The Railway Children you might be hard pressed to mention another example of her many roles. Like the majority of the films in which she starred Sweet William went straight under the radar and there it remains to this day.

I have to confess I have a thing for 1970/1980s Brit flicks. Whether it’s familiarity and/or the ambience I know not; I just know I’m a sucker for anything made by Euston, Lion or The Who films etc. Sweet William was the creation of Berwick Street Films, the company responsible for Scum and one of a glut of indie producers that flourished for a brief moment in this era.

When Ann Walton’s (Agutter) fiancé departs for the US on business, she soon meets bohemian playwright William (Sam Waterston) at a school play. As ever, it’s the male who works very hard in order to ensnare a female who is not especially elusive: Agutter’s character does not exactly play hard to get. When the charismatic stranger mentions he’s on TV that night the impressionable young woman tunes in to find her mysterious wooer indeed interviewed by none other than Melvyn Bragg, TV royalty.

From that moment on she’s smitten. Like her female sisters through time immemorial, it is strongly implied that Agutter is seduced not so much by the man, more by what he represents: success and perhaps illusion. To cite an old cliché, she is swept off her feet and swiftly into bed. Oddly, there’s little or no remorse, no agonising over her faraway fiancé. Ms Walton is completely taken with the elusive, ultra-confident man who has catapulted himself into her life. William is a force of nature, irresistible to women or so it seems. Beware!

If he really is so magnetic then it can only spell trouble for the women who fall in love with him. It’s an old story: rogues have always appealed to women; the female of the sex has a fertile imagination and where some see a cad, the more romantically-inclined may see something altogether different: a hero or a gentleman. Such is Agutter’s fate. Despite her beau’s flirtations with other women and her growing misgivings, her beau can do no wrong. He’s perfect in every way no matter what the Agony Aunts might say.

Even when William drops a bombshell – he’s married – Agutter’s fixation only intensifies. Assuming that he will ultimately return home, William’s wife (Anna Massey) allows her errant hubby to stray – he’s that irresistible. An interesting interlude is Ann’s return home to her parents for Xmas. A disapproving mother (Daphne Oxenford) and a silent, hen-pecked father (Arthur Lowe) present a grim picture of enduring married life and one from which Agutter can’t wait to escape.

While the cat’s away, William has naturally been dispensing his love to Ann’s cousin and downstairs’ neighbour. Sweet as he appears, William is an inveterate womaniser, the type of man who, when he tells Ann he loves her, may mean what he says at that moment. But this is a story about virility if nothing else: while Ann could easily live happily ever after with her knight in shining armour, a hundred women would never satisfy him. That only leaves one possible conclusion to this vignette: unhappiness and unfulfillment.

And that’s the theme of Sweet William I guess: the paradox of the sexes, the inherent polarity of the faithful female and philandering male. Indeed, it’s the Massey character who seems the most adjusted out of this trio; she understands that the sexual drive of her herself and her husband are vastly different and has adjusted to this reality. Unable to make this adjustment, women like Agutter will be forever chasing rainbows, forever disgruntled so the film implies: if you want virility then it comes with downsides . . .

Reviewers of Sweet William are generally cool towards the film and its charms. For me however, there’s quite a lot going on here – much of it subtle. And anyway, there’s always Jenny Agutter in her prime and scenes of blighty to feast one’s eyes upon. In fact, it’s one of those films whose very obscurity imbues it with magic. Don’t believe the naysayers. Give it a whirl.