Have You Heard Of… returns with Dawn Dabell taking a look at Alan J. Pakula’s neglected gem Love And Pain And The Whole Damn Thing (1973), starring Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms.
These days, Dame Maggie Smith is more known as the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham in the popular, multi-award-winning TV series Downton Abbey. Prior to this, Smith’s film and television output spans right across the previous 60 years, during which time she’s appeared in many well-regarded films: The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), California Suite (1978), Gosford Park (2001) and the Harry Potter series (2001 – 2011) to name but a few. The film I will be looking at in this review, however, is one of her lesser-known films: the unfairly neglected Love And Pain And The Whole Damn Thing (1973).
Walter Elbertson (Timothy Bottoms) is a shy and awkward young American, son of a multi-award-winning author and continually made to feel like an under-achiever within his own household. His father suggests that he should go to Spain on a cycling tour with a number of other youngsters, to build character and overcome his social inadequacies. Walter goes… but finds the cycling both tedious and tiring. Eventually he abandons his fellow cyclists and boards a bus, where he finds himself sitting beside reserved English woman Lila Fisher (Maggie Smith). As they head around Spain, Walter and Lila gradually grow to know, like and love each other. But Lila is keeping a terrible secret which could jeopardise their chances of a happy ending.
For a leading lady, Smith is not really what you would describe as a breathtaking beauty, but her striking eyes and flawless complexion mean there’s something eminently attractive about her. She’s more what I would call a ‘handsome’ woman, an actress in a similar vein to women like Julie Andrews and Lilli Palmer. Like these women, Smith is known for giving outstanding performances in virtually everything she stars in – a statement which is deservedly reflected in her reputation as one of Britain’s greatest actresses, a bona fide national treasure. Smith was in her late 30s when this film was made, and her wonderful performance here proves that an actress shouldn’t be overlooked just because they’ve hit, or are about to hit, the big 4-0. Instead they can go from strength-to-strength, putting their talents to good use and staying in the public eye for many years to come. (Maggie, who is now in her 80s, is still very much active in the industry).
Smith’s performance in Love And Pain And The Whole Damn Thing is as splendid as fans of Dame Maggie have come to expect. She plays the role of a woman who is no longer in her prime – a spinster who seems uncomfortable in the company of others – remarkably effectively. Her on-screen relationship with Bottoms is believable throughout, and the chemistry between them ranges from amusing to heart-breaking and is always wonderfully endearing. Bottoms, who had only starred in 4 productions previously, puts in a noteworthy performance, holding his own against Smith as the younger, perpetually nervous love interest. The relationship between the two characters is essential to the success of the entire film. If the audience members feel no emotion towards these individuals, the whole film would be a disaster! But, thanks to their quirky and appealing characterisations, they bounce-off each other brilliantly and completely win us over. The other cast members, although few in number, put in fine performances too, especially Don Jaime De Mora Y Aragón as a flamboyant Spanish duke who is desperate to lure Lila into his bed.
Although the film can be described as a romantic drama, it is also full of comic moments (none better than the caravan fiasco) which lighten what could easily have become a dark and brooding film centered around two characters whose relationship is potentially doomed from the start. A relationship such as this – bringing a prim and proper Englishwoman, suffering from a degenerative illness, into contact with a rich but troubled American youth – seems unlikely to work. Instead of dwelling too much on the morbid elements, the film has an offbeat quirkiness which works beautifully. By the end, we feel genuine hope that they will find a way through the many obstacles thrown in their path and be able to live happily ever after… or, at least, for whatever time they have left.
Besides the performances, credit must be given to composer Michael Small for setting the tone of the feature with his faultless score. It oozes a romantic, continental feel throughout and is simply marvellous. The soundtrack is complemented by the wonderful photography and the glorious Spanish locations. The film is truly a treat for the senses.
Love And Pain And The Whole Damn Thing is a film any fan of Maggie Smith or Timothy Bottoms should see. It is humorous, witty, intelligent, emotional and, most importantly, well-made. It’s certainly an overlooked treasure – go see it… soon!
MoM Rating: 8/10