This is the sixth year Terry has run this blogathon, but this is the first time I have chosen one of the British Kitchen Sink dramas to review for the event.
The L-Shaped Room, directed by Bryan Forbes, is a bit of an outlier in the genre.
Based on a novel of the same name by Lynne Reid Banks, the film adaptation twists up the story by casting French actress Leslie Caron as the protagonist, Jane Fosset. The story is of a 27-year-old woman who becomes pregnant after her first sexual affair. Thrown out of her parents’ home, she finds lodgings in a cheap boarding house.
Still not certain what to do about her situation, she visits a doctor who assumes why she’s there and crisply arranges an abortion. Put off by his attitude, she decides then and there she will have her child.
At first, Jane keeps herself distant from the other boarding house inhabitants. Her room is cramped with a bed full of bugs, so she has to sleep in a chair at night. Eventually, her neighbor, a musician named Johnny (Brock Peters) shows her how to get the landlady (Avis Bunnage) to do something about the bug situation. They become friends, along with Toby (Tom Bell), an aspiring writer who lives on a lower floor.
Jane tells no one about her pregnancy, though an older woman named Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) guesses her situation. Soon, she finds herself falling for Toby, who returns her feelings. She encounters the father of her child (Mark Eden) and tells him of her situation, but refuses to accept his half-hearted proposal.
When Jane and Toby begin a sexual relationship, a jealous Johnny tells Toby about the baby (he guessed because he could hear her having morning sickness). Toby disappears for a few days and Jane is frantic that she has lost him forever. Certain it’s the baby that is keeping him away, she swallows some pills provided by Mavis to bring on a miscarriage.
She ends up in the hospital but is overjoyed when she doesn’t end up losing the baby. When Toby returns, they have an emotional reunion where it looks like they will part forever, but end up reconciling.
Their romance seems doomed, however, as Toby’s frustrations over his lack of success as a writer and inability to take care of Jane financially mount. Jane goes into labor during a Christmas party with the other residents. She gives birth to a daughter. Toby finally visits her in the hospital. Jane tells him her parents have forgiven her and want her to come home with the baby. He gives her a story he has written called “The L-Shaped Room.”
Leslie Caron was mostly known for musicals and playing waif-like characters in the early part of her career. Here, she plays a totally dramatic role as a mature woman. As I said, the character being changed to a French rather than a British woman changes things up a bit from the usual kitchen sink drama. However, it does seem in keeping with the story’s setting, as the occupants of the boarding house are very diverse. Johnny is Black and it is implied he is gay (the jealousy he feels is about Toby, not Jane). Mavis, an elderly theatrical performer, comes out as a lesbian to Jane. In the book, Toby is Jewish, though I don’t think this is stated clearly in the film. One of two prostitutes who live in the basement apartment is a Hungarian refugee.
The setting is harsh, and the story deals with many of the issues we associate with kitchen sink dramas, such as premarital sex, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, poverty, disappointed lives. It’s also open-ended, leaving the Jane/Toby relationship unresolved, but there is a great deal of love and friendship in the dinky boarding house. What seems like nosiness turns out to be concern. By the time Jane gives birth, her neighbors care deeply what happens to her. They become almost like a family, but one where the members change over the years due to departures and arrivals.
This is brought home when Jane returns to her room to fetch her suitcase before leaving for France. She finds the room’s new occupant, complaining about how everyone in the house wants to be in her business. Jane tells her she knows how she feels, but there is an implication that the new occupant, like Jane, will find an extended family—no matter how brief a time she lives there.