The Family Way

The Family Way ★★★★½

There are plenty of films that could learn a lot from ‘The Family Way’ when it comes to handling tricky subject matter. The problems faced by newlyweds Jenny (Hayley Mills) and Arthur (Hywel Bennett) in the film would likely have echoed real-life experiences for many audience members in 1966, so sensitivity was key when it came to dealing with the issues in question. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem when you’ve got Mills and Bennett as your leads; they capture the lovable innocence of the two lovers, making it easy for the audience to sympathise with them. But it’s the careful use of comedy that really boosts the film, giving it a wholly optimistic outlook that anyone would find hard to resist. 

Nevertheless, this was the 60s, and these topics, namely the taboos surrounding sex and marriage, were still somewhat controversial. The traditions that ran through society at the time are reflected in the views that the older generation of characters seem intent on upholding. This is, essentially, the cause of all of Arthur and Jenny’s problems. The film depicts a time when not following these particular traditions would cause a scandal big enough to ruin careers and destroy friendships. It’s hard to imagine any such “secret” causing much of a fuss nowadays, but the effect it has on the relationship is easily recognisable. After all, many of the difficulties are caused by the lack of privacy between the couple and Arthur’s family, a situation that many still find themselves struggling with today. 

Based on the play ‘All in Good Time’ by Bolton-based writer Bill Naughton, ‘The Family Way’ transfers from stage to screen easily, making use of some wonderful northern locations in and around Naughton’s hometown. Even the rather stagey zoom out and fade to black at the end works to effect. The play is often regarded as an example of kitchen sink realism, but the film is rather different in tone to many of the ‘angry young men’ films coming out at a similar time. A key component of these dramas was the generation gap conflict, with working-class heroes rebelling against their families. The idea of “old vs new” is present here too, but Arthur and Jenny are hardly rebels, at least not knowingly. 

Of course, this is also down to the understanding the film has of it’s older characters and why they are the way they are. Ezra Fitton is, quite clearly, a much more complex character than, say, ‘Billy Liar’’s Mr Fisher (played by Wilfred Pickles, who also appears here as Uncle Fred). What initially appears to be a cold lack of empathy towards his son is revealed as the mask behind which lies genuine care and love for his family. Seen here at the height of his powers, John Mills superbly contrasts Ezra’s sensitive side and the detached relationship he has with Arthur. Marjorie Rhodes is also superb as Ezra’s more compassionate wife, Lucy. In the end, however, it’s the character we don’t even see, Billy Stringfellow, an old friend of Ezra, who enables him to finally see the light, thus playing perhaps the most important part in the film. 

Made at the height of the Swinging Sixties, the film is probably most notable to a wider audience for having a score by then-Beatle Paul McCartney and producer George Martin. The 60’s vibe is, therefore, very much at the forefront, but it’s worth remembering that ‘The Family Way’ was also quite ahead-of-it’s-time. Commendably acknowledging of various social problems (there’s even a suggestion that Arthur’s sexuality may be causing trouble in his marriage), it provides a compelling portrait of how things were at the time. Nostalgic time capsule it may be, but it’s also a timely reminder that, ultimately, these things have changed for the better.

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