Review: The Servant

Directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter, upper-class Tony hires servant Hugo Barrett, who turns out to have a hidden agenda. Starring: Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey and Richard Vernon.

If you had to pick one singular word to describe this film, it would more than likely be devious. The story builds slowly with an edge of the seedy, a big dose of the manipulative and plenty of suspicion. An interesting element to Pinter’s writing in this case is how patiently it moves, his writing is typically bursting with energy and vivacity, but this is a much more leisurely bubbling beneath the surface. In that sense, it may not work for everyone but you only have to read between the lines to see the true power play that’s at work here. It’s incredibly smart writing, which is nothing but expected from such a beloved, iconic writer, it can leave you very unsure of what to make of it and where you stand and yet it’s a brilliant piece of deception. It’s all about playing the long game, Barrett (Bogarde) is a fascinating character who is incredibly difficult to decipher and that’s what keeps you hooked in, you never quite know how far he’s capable of going.

It’s ironic how buttoned up Dirk Bogarde makes Barrett early on because you can also clearly sense the potential for a raw anger and resentment, it’s a great contrast to watch at work. James Fox brings a fairly typical rich, privileged man who simply does whatever he likes. Interestingly though, there is a sympathy to be found, beneath his brash, almost alcoholic exterior, you can sense a certain vulnerability to him. Sarah Miles doesn’t get too much of a chance to expand on her character’s personality more than her flighty, reckless outer layer, it can be a little bit uncomfortable when she tries much too hard to be sexual but it does utterly befit the norm and appetites of the time. Whereas Wendy Craig’s Susan is a much more complex character, initially it’s hard to see past her classism but as time moves on you begin to question whether it’s actually female intuition and a protective nature.

The visual holds a curious atmosphere, it feeds into that edge of suspicion, firstly feeling like a simple drama but the way that the camera moves as things get complicated embraces that change. It has a classic feel of the 1960s, particularly in the shots that hold wonderfully to reveal a single look that says plenty without its characters having to utter a word. With most of the film taking place within the house, it has a closed off feel, as if they’re just existing in their own bubble with brief forays to other places but their fate is held within that house. The restoration work highlights the care for detail in this film, especially the fantastic set decoration.

The Servant is an interesting tale of classism, power and manipulation, it may move too slowly for some people but stick with it and it brings Pinter’s classic intensity in its later moments. Bogarde and Fox are a compelling duo to watch at work, bringing such utterly different characters and the evolution of their friendship is highly unusual. It’s a curious film which holds a surprising amount of darkness, as well as a strong realism, it’s not about justice or doing the right thing, it’s about exposing desires and the lengths people will go to achieve them.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

THE SERVANT opens in cinemas on September 10 and on 4K UHD Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on September 20

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