Freud would throw up his hands, and maybe even his lunch, at the Oedipal goings-on in “Intimate Relations,” a perfectly realized black comedy about ’50s family dysfunction, English suburb-style. Based on real events, the stylish pic could click with auds who went for “Heavenly Creatures.”
Brit actor Rupert Graves plays Harold Guppy, an orphaned drifter and merchant marine who washes up in an English coastal town (pic was actually shot in Wales) with little more than his estranged brother’s address to build a new life on. When the brother’s wife (Liz McKechnie) gives him the cold shoulder, he takes up lodgings with the respectably middle-class Beasleys. Bewhiskered, and frequently bewildered, Stanley (Matthew Walker) bravely lost his leg in World War I, and Marjorie (Julie Walters) is renowned for her homemaking skills. Their daughter, Joyce (Laura Sadler), is a sweet-tempered girl with an odd interest in morbid tales. It’s a ready-made family, and Mrs. Beasley gives Harold all the tender care a boy could want. And more. At the party for Joyce’s 13th birthday, an innocent game of spin-the-bottle gives Marjorie a chance to give her boarder a peck; by nightfall, she’s crawling into bed with the startled lad. He responds by having “Mum” tattooed on his arm.
On one level, this odd coupling works, since the pent-up Marjorie hasn’t slept with her oafish hubby in years, and Harold gets all his needs met in one handy package. The wrinkle is that the pushing-50 matron rarely makes a move without her daughter, and thus sees little wrong with having Laura in the bed when she’s giving her surrogate son his nightly tuck-in. Pretty soon, he’s caught in a multigenerational tug of war, and all three prove themselves capable of blackmail, both emotional and literal.
What keeps the story blackly funny and not just bleak — aside from expert use of period detail and corny pop songs — is that the characters’ actions are so often at odds with their speech. Harold is too much an emotional basket case to cope with this powerhouse in hair rollers, and too inarticulate to seek help. We learn, portentously, that he’s hypoglycemic, with a history of sudden outbursts (“A couple of boiled sweets,” he explains reassuringly, “and I’m as happy as Larry”).
But if these intimate strangers trigger outsize reactions in oneanother, first-time helmer Philip Goodhew is careful not to let them drift into caricature. In particular, he gets one of her best screen performances from Walters, who quickly signed on to the low-budget project after reading Goodhew’s smart script. Her prudish Marjorie doesn’t see the disparity between her obsession with appearances and her sudden sexual thrall, but Walters also makes you feel all the rage of a repressed, wasted life clinging to one last wisp of passion.
The rest of the cast meets her challenge, and you end up rooting for everybody while being repulsed by their willful ignorance and bad judgment. Andres Garreton’s cool-colored lensing helps, since climactic moments are shot in surprisingly non-sensationalistic ways — even as events move to a surprisingly violent conclusion — and everyone’s faces are treated with frank affection.
Offshore auds may have some trouble with mumbled regional accents and idiomatic humor, but with careful marketing, fans of taboo-breaking British and Aussie fare will be happy as Larry to have this handsome specimen move into their local arthouse for an extended stay.