Context is everything in taking in the oddest film in British director Michael Apted’s career, this early drama from the TV director (transitioning to film) who went on to director “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a Bond film, movies in most every genre under the cinematic sun.
Apted, who died this past January, was already making his name through his landmark “Seven plus Seven” (later “28 Up,” “42 Up,” etc.) documentaries dissecting British lives, expectations, class foibles, etc. But here was a film, made for British television, that was part of this “discovering alternative sexualities” that were all the rage in the UK thanks to the plays of Joe Orton (“What the Butler Saw”) and others, and films like “Sunday Bloody Sunday;”
“The Triple Echo” even cast Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, two of the stars of Ken Russell’s notoriously homoerotic “Women in Love” (1969). The story told in “Echo” toyed with gender identity and toxic masculinity in a World War II setting, part of Britain’s post-war obsession with “their finest hour.”
Before we get too impressed in “ahead of its time” and all that, though, it’s worth recognizing that it makes rather a hash of things. A tale of a married farm wife (Jackson) whose husband is a POW, captured by the Japanese in the Far East, who meets, befriends and takes as a lover a young recruit (Brian Deacon) whom she convinces to dress as her sister after he decides to go AWOL, it has comic elements that never play as funny, melodramatic touches that deliver eye-rolls and a tone that never matches the absurdity of its scenario.
God only knows how Brits took it at the time. Sure, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was reveling in comical cross-dressing. But this wasn’t “Dad’s Army,” after all. And it wasn’t exactly “The Crying Game” either.
Jackson, already an Oscar winner for “Women in Love,” on her way to winning another for “A Touch of Class” (1974), was the biggest female star in Britain, a sexy/smart/flinty presence which made her well-suited to Alice. A stiff-upper-lip, self-reliant farm wife keeping calm and carrying on even though her husband — probably captured at Hong Kong or Singapore — might never come home, she meets the rambling Barton as she’s shouldering a shotgun, hunting rabbits.
Barton is young, handsome, handy and not the sort that she’d perceive as a threat. A friendship of the “nice to have a man around the house” turns serious when they become lovers and he decides to abandon his Army training and desert. Out of the blue, she decides that he needs to grow his hair, wear her clothes and pass for her sister, just in case anybody drops by.
He puts up little resistance as he “reluctantly” agrees. What drives her insistence is something she sees in him, we can surmise. He may be able to fix her tractor, but he’s entirely too delicate for Army life. She can sense it.
Things take an even odder turn as a passing tank crew stop by, and its gruff and bullying Sgt. (Reed) takes an unwelcome interest in the “sister” he barely glimpses and the POW widow someone with scruples would have respected and left alone.
He drags a mate along as he proceeds to barge in — literally — uninvited and unwelcome. Alice tries to brush off these advances, and finds herself alone, forced to confront brute masculine force with “sister” in her room with a “sore throat.”
Every turn that comes along is a lot more predictable today than it would have been in 1972, but there’s a lot of “come on, now” about the entire plot.
Jackson displays nice pluck as Alice, the person who takes the lead in her illicit affair, unrattled at the danger these intruding soldiers represent to her, Barton and their little mid-war idyll. But at least she recognizes it.
Reed is perfectly loathsome, imposing his will, misreading every situation.
Apted, working from a Robin Chapman script, gets at the coarseness of a time romanticized by Britain’s Greatest Generation, the sexual mores of soldiers and the nuts-and-bolts of hiding someone in a time of food rationing in a village of busybodies with a soldier who could face the worst consequences if they’re found out.
“The Triple Echo” has an R-rated edge, but looks like what it is — a TV movie. The visuals are washed-out, with natural “documentary” lighting, inside and out. The performances have a perfunctory quality, although Reed sinks his teeth into his villainy the way only he could.
The “triple echo” of the title is literal — the sounds of a shotgun echoing through the hills — and symbolic. Hints of other lives, false lives and consequences live in it.
But as a lifelong fan of Apted, a cinematic generalist who excelled at documentaries, got Sissy Spacek her Oscar and did a passable Bond pic as well as “Thunderheart,” “Amazing Grace” and “Enigma,” and finished his career with “63 Up,” capping the finest human potential/human life documentary series ever, I have to say “The Triple Echo” doesn’t work.
The performances have a flatness we don’t associate with Jackson. There’s no “heat,” and the central situation never loses the air of “absurd.” Not that there weren’t men who put on dresses to escape service.
In the context of its time, I am sure it was daring. Not today. And its resolution was entirely too of-its-day, when anyone who strayed from the straight-and-narrow, sexually, seemed to welcome their on-screen doom as if it was their due.
Still, Apted managed to give us a strong sense of a place and a time and held his own (more or less) with top-flight actors. His curiosity about people and their “roles” in his society would find other outlets.
And he would go on to bigger and better things, and keep making his “Seven Up” films every seven years, exploring human lives predestined by class to play out within the narrow confines his culture laid out for them.
MPA Rating: R, sexual situations, violence, profanity
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Brian Deacon and Oliver Reed
Credits: Directed by Michael Apted, script by Robin Chapman, based on a short story by H.E. Bates. A Hemdale film on Roku.
Running time: 1:30