Directed By: Lewis Gilbert
Written By: Willy Russell
Pauline Collins – Shirley Valentine-Bradshaw
Tom Conti – Costas Dimitriades
Julia McKenzie – Gillian
Alison Steadman – Jane
Joanna Lumley – Marjorie Majors
Sylvia Syms – Headmistress
Bernard Hill – Joe Bradshaw
Tracie Bennett – Millandra Bradshaw
Gareth Jefferson – Brian Bradshaw
Gillian Kearney – young Shirley
Catherine Duncan – young Marjorie
Language: English Genre: Romantic-Comedy; Drama
The interesting thing about Shirley Valentine is that it overturns the stock terms used to describe the genre and theme of the film – romantic comedy about a bored housewife who goes on a holiday to Greece and rediscovers herself; love and life. This description would be too simplistic.
The romance in this film isn’t about Shirley (Pauline Collins) being enamoured by the Greek bar owner Costas (Tom Conti) who helps her rediscover pleasure but it goes back to a far older and poetic meaning of romance or otherwise known as romanticism.
The Illustrated Dictionary of Essential Knowledge defines romanticism by saying it “stressed the value of personal emotion and imagination and freedom from the strict rules of form…” (72). It also laid emphasis on man’s, “innate powers of creativity, his spontaneity and his relationship with the natural world” (145).
When looked at from this lens, the film isn’t about a bored housewife (two words that carry its fair share of connotations) but about a woman who has given up on herself. Shirley is someone who has judged herself to be irrelevant or just a fixture in the house because she is in her eyes, a failure.
Her days are spent talking to the kitchen wall or ‘The Wall’ because there is no one else she can confide in. Making her husband Joe’s (Bernard Hill) routine dishes for tea is the other exciting diversion of her life.
The older Shirley also carries baggage from her high school days of not measuring up to the exacting standards of the headmistress (Sylvia Syms) who believed that the young Shirley (Gillian Kearney) was incapable of amounting to anything. She felt unfairly compared to the school’s ‘perfect girl’ Marjorie Majors (Catherine Duncan).
However, a chance meeting with an older Marjorie Majors (Joanna Lumley) makes her realise that she does not the live the glamorous life Shirley assumed she would. And when Marjorie confesses that she envied her at school, it comes as a surprise to Shirley that a nonentity like her could be envied. One realises that people love making assumptions about themselves, situations and others so the first step to rediscovery comes from breaking them.
The film shows that while visiting an exotic location for a holiday may be romantic, living there day-in and day-out takes some of the romance away. But the point of Shirley staying at Greece was not about an exotic experience alone but as a new take on life. So doing even mundane activities like talking to ‘the wall’ or making chip and eggs for ‘unwilling to experiment’ British tourists are still charming.
A scene that was both hilarious and warm was when Joe begins talking to the wall. You notice a man who was once willing to experiment but responsibilities made him choose stability instead. Now when external circumstances force him to reconsider, it is with a sudden awareness that he is actually lonely and has been so for so long. So he converses with the wall to retain a connection with Shirley.
The reactions of her children add to the drama of the narrative but what takes it forward is her self-righteous neighbour Gillian’s (Julia McKenzie) open-hearted support of Shirley’s decision to take her life in her hands. It is moving to see the honest appreciation and the vicarious longing behind her action of gifting a silk robe.
By turns droll and stirring, the film is an honest and ordinary woman’s decision to fall in love with life. Not as a mother, or a wife or a lover but as Shirley Valentine. It falls within that special bracket of films about women who strike out on their own, either by choice or circumstance such as English Vinglish, Queen, Under the Tuscan Sun – to accept the changes in themselves; without guilt.
Special mention: the script – unemotional, funny yet warm it conveys a woman’s journey without the usual clichés of travel romances.