In 1937, journalist Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings were joined by anthropologist Tom Harrisson to form a group called Mass Observation. The group placed an advertisement in newspapers all over Britain asking for people from all walks of life to write down their thoughts and lives in a diary.
The diaries would be compiled and the results calculated in an early version of an opinion poll. The group's reasoning was that the leaders of the country were out of touch with the common man and this was a good way to let the common man tell the leaders what was happening in the real world as well as creating an “anthropology of ourselves”. At the height of the programs, thousands of people participated.
One participant was Nella Last (Victoria Wood), a 49-year-old housewife from Barrow-in-Furness. Although outwardly appearing as normal with a husband and two sons in their early twenties, she had been having mental problems culminating in a nervous breakdown not long before applying to the program. When asked by her husband, who never failed to try and squeeze any enjoyment she might feel out of life like a wet dish towel, why she wanted to write down a diary, she couldn’t put her reason into words. Her first entries were in pencil on scraps of paper.
Watching Housewife, 49, which is based on Nella's diaries, I got the feeling that at least part of the reason she applied was a need to break out of her shell and grow emotionally.
The supporting cast is strong, led by David Threlfall’s portrayal of Nella’s Eeyore of a husband, Will Last. The sons, Cliff (Christopher Harper) and Arthur (Ben Crompton), are especially good foils for each other as well as the family. Nella’s sister-in-law, Dot (Lorraine Ashbourne), shares her brother’s world views to a lesser degree.
One of the funnier parts of the movie happens when Dot goes on vacation to the Isle of Man and comes back engaged. “Still can't believe it. Went to the Isle of Man – got myself a man!” Dot tells Nella to which Nella replies, “Good job you didn't go to the Isle of Dogs!” The dialogue has much wit to it and everyone gets a chance to show it. Cliff asks Nella, “What do prodigal sons get now days? Fatted Spam?”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching this movie. I have seen Victoria Wood as a comedienne and found her to be pretty funny. I had a hard time imagining her in a straight dramatic role. To my delight, she took a story that quite easily could have overdone the drama and tears, injected just a touch of wit and humor and made the story truly human. The characters and situations felt real to me and made me care about them.
One thing to remember is that this is not a word-for-word dramatization of Nella Last’s diaries. I’ve read some commentary that little of what is portrayed in the movie actually happened in the diaries. In my mind, that does count against the story somewhat but I feel that Victoria Wood dramatized the story somewhat in an effort to show what life was like for women in the war years. Watching the movie, I had no doubts that the people and times were real.
More suited to a cup of tea than my bike trainer, I would recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a well written and acted period movie of the type that the English do so well.