For some, the uncertainty over what to call the picture foreshadowed the uncertainty of its story and style. The movie tries to perform a delicate balancing act, poised between the comedy generated by its unorthodox main characters and the tragedy that grows out of their psychological instability. Neither the film as a whole, directed by J. Lee Thompson, nor many of its individual scenes, despite energetic work by Peter O'Toole and Susannah York, consistently rise to the challenge. But watching them try can be very interesting.
The character played by O'Toole has a daunting name of his own: Sir Charles Henry Arbuthnot Pinkerton Ferguson, known as Pink to his friends. Although he comes from upper-crust Scottish stock, mental and emotional problems have reduced him to living in a ramshackle house on a dairy farm owned by his family. York plays his sister Hilary, who's come to stay with him after a serious quarrel with Douglas, her handsome husband.
At the beginning of the film, Hilary travels from the farm to a sheep auction that her estranged husband is also attending. Realizing she's still strongly attracted to him, she agrees to meet him at a country dance for a rendezvous and maybe a reconciliation. But she doesn't reckon on the full force of Pink's attachment to her. Showing up at the dance in a semi-drunken daze, he finds one dizzy way after another to keep Hilary and Douglas apart. Finally he convinces Hilary that her seemingly proper husband has slept with a lowly maid, fathering a child by her. Hilary takes revenge on Douglas by spending the night with a man who happens to be the illegitimate kid's actual dad. Hearing about this tryst from Hilary the next morning, Pink fears she's leaving his life for good. The shock is so profound that it knocks his precarious mental equilibrium for a loop, sending him into what could be a fatal emotional tailspin.
Even a brief synopsis indicates the many divergent moods that Brotherly Love has to put across. The shenanigans of Pink and Hilary aim for laughs in some scenes while conveying pathos and even danger in others. There's nothing funny about their secret past, and there's even less amusement in the dark cloud it casts over their adult lives; yet their hidden love clearly grew from the same irreverent personality traits that make them endearing at times. The film's most moving and surprising scene is the uncompromising conclusion, but for all its power, its despairing tone conflicts with much of the material preceding it. Added up, this is a lot for actors to cope with.
O'Toole and York certainly give it their all. O'Toole built an important part of his reputation playing characters who take a long, broad view of life, most famously in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and in two pictures-Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968)--where he played King Henry II, earning two Academy Award nominations in the process. Pink is more a weirdo than a philosopher, but he does see the world in terms very different from the ones most of us subscribe to, and O'Toole makes no effort to dilute or soften his ornery nature.
As a one-time student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a veteran of the Bristol Old Vic theater company, O'Toole also had good credentials for handling the stagy elements running through the film, left over from its previous incarnation as a play. He plays Pink with an over-the-top gusto that would surely look great from the second balcony, even if it seems a tad hammy on the screen. York, also a RADA grad with impressive stage experience, started her movie career in the excellent 1960 military drama Tunes of Glory, also adapted by Kennaway from one of his novels. She gives Brotherly Love a psychological center of gravity that helps unify its contradictory ingredients.
Thompson was a versatile director, with credits ranging from The Guns of Navarone (1961) and the original Cape Fear (1962) in the early 1960s to a pair of Planet of the Apes sequels and various low-budget quickies in the later stage of his career. Widely respected for his skill at working with actors, he was a solid craftsman able to combine movie realism with a sense of theatricality and a commitment to clear-cut storytelling. Brotherly Love ranks with his more ambitious assignments, and he handles it in a workmanlike way.
Brotherly Love wasn't well received when it was new. In one perceptive review, New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted that we never see the outside of the farmhouse where much of the action takes place, and conversely, we never get a convincing glimpse of what's happening inside the main characters' minds. Time magazine was less gentle. O'Toole always starts twitching when he's exasperated with a project, the reviewer claimed, and this picture is so awful that he "appears to be in almost continual spasm from beginning to end."
Writing years later, however, critic Stanley Kauffman named Brotherly Love, along with Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class (1972), as movies that revealed O'Toole's potential to become "one of the great actors in history." Seen alongside his more recent work, most notably in the poignant Venus (2006), this much earlier performance offers rich material to compare and contrast.
Producer: Robert Emmett Ginna
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: James Kennaway, based on his novel Household Ghosts and his play Country Dance
Cinematographer: Ted Moore
Film Editing: Willy Kemplen
Art Direction: Maurice Fowler
Music: John Addison
With: Peter O'Toole (Sir Charles Ferguson), Susannah York (Hilary Dow), Michael Craig (Douglas Dow), Harry Andrews (Brigadier Crieff), Cyril Cusack (Dr. Maitland), Judy Cornwell (Rosie), Brian Blessed (Jock Baird), Robert Urquhart (auctioneer), Mark Malicz (Benny-the-Pole), Lennox Milne (Miss Mailer), Jean Anderson (matron), Rona Newton-John (Miss Scott), Marjorie Christie (Bun Mackenzie), Marjorie Dalziel (Bank Lizzie), Helena Gloag (Auntie Belle), Roy Boutcher (James McLachlan Forbes), Ewan Roberts (committee member), Peter Reeves (Smart Alec), Paul Farrell (Alec-the-Gillie), Alex McAvoy (Andrew).
by David Sterritt