Aka Pretty Polly.
I had had no intention of watching this film—in fact, to be honest, I had forgotten all about it until someone mentioned it when I posted a review to mark the passing of one of my favourite Hindi film actors, Shashi Kapoor. I was well aware of the fact that besides acting in Hindi cinema, Shashi had acted in several English-language films (in particular, Merchant-Ivory productions like The Householder and Bombay Talkie, but I’d forgotten this one (which, by the way, isn’t Merchant-Ivory). A sweet, sometimes comic, sometimes poignant coming-of-age film about an innocent young miss who falls in love while in Singapore.
Polly Barlow (Hayley Mills) is the quintessential poor relative for the wealthy Mrs Innes-Hook (Brenda de Banzie). Along with her mother, Polly runs a tiny bakeshop; when the film begins, Polly’s aunt Mrs Innes-Hook is getting ready to embark on a cruise around the world, and wants Polly to accompany her. Not, it is apparent, out of any sort of affection or sense of philanthropy, even though she likes to boast that she is doing Polly a huge favour: no, Mrs Ines-Hook basically wants an unpaid servant along. Polly’s mother and Polly realize this, and Mum tries to dissuade Polly, but in vain.
Which is why, on board ship, poor, plain Polly with her unfortunate dresses, her glasses and her terrible hairdo, finds herself rushing about all the time, fetching and carrying for her aunt. Mrs Ines-Hook is a nasty woman who even grudges Polly the little happiness the girl is able to get by peering out through her binoculars at the sights.
The ship docks at Singapore, where Mrs Ines-Hook’s brother, Robert ‘Bob’ Hook has a plantation and will be coming to the docks to receive his sister and niece, whom he hasn’t seen in years.
But Uncle Bob (Trevor Howard) is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a handsome young man (Shashi Kapoor), who introduces himself as Amazuddin ‘Amaz’, tells them he’s been assigned the task (by Bob Hook) of welcoming the ladies, taking them to their hotel and seeing them settled in. He explains that Uncle Bob is suffering from malaria.
Amaz is very attractive and it’s obvious that Polly is attracted. He helps them into a car, suggests that he may be allowed to borrow it to complete some tasks while the ladies rest, and takes the resultant rebuff from Mrs Ines-Hook in his stride.
On the way to the hotel, while their car is waiting for a traffic policeman to wave them through, whom should Polly and Amaz notice but Bob Hook, in a rickshaw with his mistress Lorelei (Kalen Liu)!
Uncle Bob sees them too and immediately pulls his hat down and turns his face away. Simultaneously, Amaz—who thinks on his feet—is able to distract Mrs Ines-Hook. Polly, who may be innocent but is by no means naïve, comes to the rescue too and joins in the fun of keeping Uncle Bob’s subterfuge under wraps.
At the hotel, Mrs Ines-Hook is checked into a plush room on the same floor as a debonair stranger named Preston (Dick Patterson), whom they encounter in the lift. Preston has obviously been staying at the hotel for a while: he is on very friendly terms with the lift operator.
Preston doesn’t even notice Polly, who goes up to the (much less classy) floor on which she’s been given a room.
On this first day at the hotel in Singapore, two things happen.
Firstly, while waiting around, Polly notices Amaz being greeted by two middle-aged (bordering on elderly) American women who thank him profusely for all that he’s done for them. For showing them so much, for doing so much… it’s obvious that Amaz is a gigolo.
Secondly, at the poolside that afternoon, Mrs Ines-Hook, having stuffed herself on ribs and more, gets into the swimming pool—and dies of a heart attack.
Polly, suddenly left without her tyrannical aunt and without any means of getting hold of Uncle Bob (she doesn’t even have his address) turns to the only person she knows somewhat in Singapore: Amaz. She fishes out the business card he had given her and summons him—and Amaz faithfully turns up. He is there throughout the proceedings, as arrangements are made for Mrs Ines-Hook’s funeral, as Polly telephones Uncle Bob to let him know.
Amaz even takes Polly out for dinner, and then, in what seems as good a time as any, kisses her soundly. Polly is somewhat startled, but Amaz seems to think nothing of this. He tells her what pretty eyes she has, he kisses her again, he ends up making love to her on the beach…
… and he takes her to various friends of his—an optician, a beautician—and gets Polly a makeover. Polly, too, what with the removal of her domineering aunt from the scene, blossoms. She takes over Mrs Ines-Hook’s room, goes through all her possessions, and has everything sorted out by the time Uncle Bob arrives. There’s a treasure in pearls that Auntie had bought in the course of this cruise which is not yet insured.
Will Uncle Bob, since he’s obviously a man of the world and knows Singapore so well, please dispose of these pearls and give the money to Polly?
Uncle Bob is taken aback; he had not expected Polly to be quite so worldly-wise. He hadn’t even expected her to look like this. He’s too outspoken to mince words: has Polly become Amaz’s lover? Doesn’t she realize what he’s like? A gigolo, no more? Polly is indignant; no, Amaz’s heart is in the right place; he feels for her.
Uncle’s warnings re: Amaz don’t seem to have any effect on Polly. But a stylish and beautiful Polly, walking through the hotel to her plush new room, bumps into Preston, who now notices her—and how! Within moments, Preston has invited Polly for cocktails, and Polly has accepted.
And so Polly goes from being a shrinking violet to the toast of Singapore. The glasses, the prim dresses and the appalling hairdo have given way to a fashionably chic look. But how much has the inner Polly changed? And what lies ahead of her? Will she fall a victim to the obviously predatory Preston? Or will she end up living on love and fresh air with the man she really loves, Amaz? Will life throw up other surprises and make Polly grow up even more than she has in the course of these few days?
A Matter of Innocence is a simple enough tale (it was based on a story by Noel Coward) about a somewhat suppressed, ‘good’ girl who’s catapulted into an adventure (of sorts) that changes her—possibly forever. It isn’t as if Polly Barlow is incorrigibly demure and shy to start with: no; in the way she behaves when her aunt’s not watching (for instance, how she plays along to keep Uncle Bob’s subterfuge hidden from Mrs Ines-Hook), she shows a cheekiness, an occasional defiance of authority, and a glimpse of a free spirit that blossoms in its entirety only later.
What I liked about this film:
Hayley Mills, Shashi Kapoor and Trevor Howard. All three of them bring their characters to life excellently. Mills is very believable both as the quiet young woman who sets off on the cruise just so that she can get to see the world before she settles down into married monotony, and as the chic, self-assured miss who goes out painting the town red with a handsome man. She has no qualms in admitting—to Amaz, or to Uncle Bob—that she really doesn’t feel any remorse over the death of her horrid aunt, and she has no compunctions about going off on a date with a man she’s only just met. She goes from being a ‘good’ girl to a ‘bad’ (but not completely irredeemable—far from it) girl.
Trevor Howard is both delightfully wicked as well as—when the moment calls for it—avuncular and wise in his own way.
And Shashi Kapoor? Well. I had to admit I had some qualms about seeing how an Indian would be portrayed in an English film (I don’t really think of the Merchant-Ivory films as outright foreign; thanks to the Ruth Prawer-Jhabwala connection and the Merchant presence, those films are often as much Indian as they are foreign). Would Amaz turn out to be the stereotypical Indian?
No, thankfully no, despite the very old-fashioned language Amaz uses (and which he’s painfully aware is not quite the thing), he is by no means the stereotypical Indian. He isn’t even Indian, actually, since his origin is never mentioned—even Uncle Bob refers to Amaz as an “Asian gigolo”. He is, for all that Victorian language, a suave, street-smart, debonair and immensely attractive man, and one with depths perhaps even he doesn’t realize he has. And Shashi Kapoor pulls off the role brilliantly.
Oh, yes. Matt Monro’s rendition of the title song is very easy listening.
What I didn’t like:
The over-the-top depiction of the bad Far East. Yes, Singapore and Malaysia and all those other exotic places were pretty wild back then, and I’m sure what is shown in A Matter of Innocence is true—to some extent. But this unrelieved debauchery? I wonder. It seemed a little far-fetched to me. Also, the very stereotyped gay hair-dresser hasn’t aged well: back then, this might have been nothing to squirm about, but it certainly made me wince now, fifty years down the line.
And, I will admit that the Bollywood-loving me had hoped for a different ending, but still: it was a satisfying film. And a chance to watch an English film that actually featured an Indian actor in a leading role.