By Craig Leask
Shirley Valentine is a 1989 British romantic comedy which follows forty-something Shirley Valentine through a comedic mid-life crisis as she revisits and rediscovers the dreams of her youth and her innocent love of life. The film (and play) addresses the questions: “What happened to the high school rebel full of dreams of travel” and “when did I turn into this and he into that?”
Let’s start by acknowledging that Film Critic Roger Ebert hated this movie, giving it one star in the Chicago Sun-Times referring to the film as “a realistic drama of appalling banality,” pointing out that “there were moments during the movie when I cringed at the manipulative dialogue”, and “Many of the sentiments in this film seem recycled directly from greeting cards.” Well, while Roger is entitled to his well-educated opinion, I happened to have liked the film – a lot! I found Pauline Collins (in the title role) relatable and even started to revisit some of my own decisions and life choices after seeing the film.
Written by William Russell – Our Day Out (1977), Educating Rita (1983) and the 1983 musical Blood Brothers – Shirley Valentine was originally developed as a one-woman stage play, premiering in 1986 at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Success in Liverpool led to opening in London’s West End and then the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1989, running for 324 performances. The production, starring Pauline Collins, received two Tony Award nominations in 1989 including Best Play and Best Actress in a Play, winning for Collins. The play’s success on Broadway led to a US national tour in 1995.
The film version of Shirley Valentine opened the Montreal Film Festival at the Théâtre Maisonneuve on August 24, 1989. Bucking the norm for the festival opening films, the movie was featured in English without French Subtitles (in French-speaking Quebec). The film, which gave Collins her breakthrough film role, opened in North America on August 30, 1989, following in the UK on October 27, 1989.
The movie was nominated at that year’s Academy Awards for Best Actress (Pauline Collins) and Best Song (“The Girl Who Used To Be Me”), failing to win in either category.
Russell’s original concept was for a one-woman soliloquy in which Shirley shares with the audience her life story including all the supporting characters, whom she mimics. Although the format for the theatre was very successful, it was quickly realized that this approach would not work on film, leading to the decision that the mimicked characters needed to be real and present on the screen. This is accomplished while not losing the essence of the main character – mainly the important monologues in which the lonely Shirley voices her thoughts with her kitchen wall or to a rock on the beach in Greece, as well as sharing certain insights with the viewers – “I talk to rock, but he doesn’t talk to me. He can’t you see, he’s a Greek rock. He can’t understand a bleeding thing I’m saying.”
Producer and director Lewis Gilbert created a beautiful re-imagination of Willy Russell’s stage play for the big screen. However, the glue that holds this witty and direct comedy together is entirely attributed to the believability and relatability of Pauline Collins and the life she breathes into Shirley Valentine. The audience can envision themselves in her situations and can relate to the sarcastic assessment of her life’s dreams and its realities. We understand her station in life and her questioning of “is this all there is”?
In the film, Shirley’s main preoccupation is that life is passing her by. Her present situation is cleverly told through flashbacks which identify a young Shirley as a rebellious, free-spirited girl who has been beaten down by school masters, convinced she will never amount to anything. The Shirley of today has unknowingly become trapped in a highly predictable and uninteresting life. She is bored, frustrated and in a lifeless and unfulfilling marriage to a man (Bernard Hill) who finds comfort in not deviating from routine (“It’s Thursday. We always have steak on a Thursday … I like chips and egg on a Tuesday. Today is Thursday.”)
As perfectly vocalized in the movies’ Oscar nominated theme song, “The Girl Who Used To Be Me” sung by Patti Austin, the theme of the film is the lead character’s search for the idealism and optimism of her lost youth – the search for the person she used to be. Notably, the film’s title is her maiden name, not her married name, which is Bradshaw.
One fortunate day Shirley is given the opportunity to prove to herself that it is never too late to make your dream come true, when her friend Jane (Alison Steadman) wins a two-week vacation to Greece in a magazine contest and invites Shirley to accompany her. Having never been out of the country, and after much soul searching, without telling her disapproving husband she accepts and secretly prepares for an adventure in Greece.
Once on holiday in Greece, Shirley remains contentedly alone as Jane is off on a tryst with a local “fella” whom she met on the plane. Alone, that is until she meets Costas Dimitriades (Tom Conti), the owner of a local restaurant who offers to help her fulfill her dream of “drinking wine by the seashore in the country where the grapes were grown”. While agreeing to not seduce her, Costas invites her for a ride around the island on his brother’s boat. As he states: “Boat is boat, fuck is fuck. Is different”.
It is through her brief affair with the charming and seductive Costas that Shirley begins to rebuild her self-esteem, her confidence and, following very enthusiastic sex on Costas’ brother’s boat, she stares directly into the camera and reveals that she has fallen in love with the idea of living.
The film ends with husband Joe arriving in Greece following up on Shirley as she is clearly not returning to Liverpool. Shirley, confidently wearing sunglasses and feeling like a different person, is sipping wine at her table by the sea, idyllically watching the sun set. Joe passes her, not recognizing the girl she used to be and the girl she has once again become. The final scene shows the two, silhouetted against the setting sun, drinking their wine in the country where the grapes are grown and becoming reacquainted.
One of the brilliant aspects of William Russell’s script is in his ability to create supporting roles that are not necessarily there to support the plot or the film’s storyline. What these characters do is to help the audience understand Shirley’s past and her journey. Snobbish neighbor Gillian’s (Julia McKenzie) bloodhound “Claymore” appears to be a metaphor for Shirley’s existing life – a meat eating hunter, confined to a predictable suburban life. His strong instincts broken by someone else’s rules with scheduled walks and, like Shirley, even having a diet that is completely controlled – “he’s vegan”.
Marjorie (Joanna Lumley), her school antagonist with the expensive elocution lessons (who is now a top-class hooker) admits to Shirley that in school she was envious and wanted to be like her. When the two women say good bye to one another after their chance meeting, there is an honest look of sorrow in Marjorie’s face, perhaps regretting the choices she has made in her own life and realizing Shirley is the friend she would have liked to have had. Neighbor Gillian drops her one-one-upmanship façade, revealing her true feelings in presenting Shirley with a very expensive silk robe for her trip, which she herself was never brave enough to wear. Admitting she wished she had Shirley’s bravery, she states: “I just want you to know, I think you’re marvelous.”
Even Dougie and Jeannette (George Costigan and Anna Keaveney), the narrow-minded vacationers from Manchester, through their crass actions and prejudicial comments provide an important platform to demonstrate Shirley Valentine’s natural open-minded worldliness.
The beauty of Shirley Valentine is in its grounding. Her life and her realizations and experiences through her Greek adventures are by no means Hallmark moments – and she knows this. Shirley Valentine is not a film about escaping reality into a fantasy, it’s about gaining strength through finding out who you really are and finding your own happiness. Shirley is not without her flaws and she accepts this whole heartedly. With this self-deprecating knowledge, she can clearly see through the facades of others (her spoiled children, haughty neighbor, perfect schoolmate) and can sensitively make fun at them.
At the end of the film Shirley realizes that she has not fallen in love with Costas or with Greece. Instead she has fallen in love with life once again. A beautiful lesson for all of the Shirley’s out there who have lost that innocent youthful drive and that joy of life.
Take that Roger Ebert!
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.