Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, the creepy nursery rhyme from which the title of this film is derived, is popular on neither side of the Atlantic (and rightfully so). So for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, it goes like this: “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater/ Had a wife and couldn’t keep her/ He put her in a pumpkin shell / And there he kept her very well.” From the allusive title, we can gather that this is the story of a woman trapped — mentally, emotionally, physically.
Jo Armitage is this very woman. Trapped in a marriage to a chronically adulterous husband, chained to a peculiar propensity for childbearing — Jo Armitage spends the film skating on the edge of her sanity. Throughout the film, we cannot make up our minds whether her predicament is her own doing. Sometimes her insecurity, her need to be needed absolutely, seems to be beyond any doubt. Her fitful rage as her shrink announces he is holidaying in Tenerife [“Why the hell don’t you go to Cannes? Or Portofino!”] is a case in point.
However, the wonderful thing about The Pumpkin Eater is that Harold Pinter, Jack Clayton, and of course, Anne Bancroft —writer, director and leading lady respectively — are all determined to do the woman justice. One of the most penetrative moments of the film is the haunting Harrods scene in which Jo has a nervous breakdown. She treads slowly through the department store, surrounded by mindless consumerism, and mannequins with formless faces. She stops to watch some birds encaged in the pet store; we know, of course, she’s looking in, and yet at the same time, it feels as if she is looking out. Later, we cut to a close-up of Jo, standing alone in a sea of strangers. The doleful Delerue theme falls silent, and the camera goes in and out of focus, mimicking the way in which Jo’s tears are obstructing her view of the world. The world, visually and aurally, is shut out completely, and all we can hear is Jo’s crying.
It is rare to see a film that readily and insightfully enters in to the psyche of so inward (not to mention, neurotic) a personality. But The Pumpkin Eater does so successfully. What is more, it balances this deep, interior world with occasional glimpses of a world outside. Perhaps the most memorable of all these sojourns is Jo’s visit to the hairdresser’s. While Jo is getting her hair done, there sits beside her a nameless young woman, played by the great Yootha Joyce. At first, Joyce’s character is terribly starstruck by Jo, whom she recognises from the glamorous magazines. Admiration and flattery turn into misery though as imagining Mrs Armitage’s perfect existence calls her back to her own sad little life, which she describes as only “an empty place”. Things take an even nastier turn as misery morphs into anger and psychosis; the camera draws closer and close to the two women, and the nameless lady directs her rage at the only other left in the frame: Jo Armitage. We go in for a close-up of Jo, and rest awhile on her sad, empty eyes. At that moment, she and the audience share in the same realisation: beyond her existence is only another — a world just as sad, just as full of suffering.
But what of that “perfect life” that Yootha’s character imagines? I think my first instinct would be to scoff. The indeterminate number of kids are more of a nightmare than a dream, and the sound department does a fine job making sure that we never hear them as individuals, only an incessant rabble, constantly wittering away, and spilling things, and breaking things, and turning up every radio in the house. As for Mr. Jake Armitage, Peter Finch is excellent as the husband who sees it as his decided right to sleep around as long as he keeps providing for the rabble, or as Jo’s father once put it, the “zoo and their keeper”. Yet he manages also to maintain a charming likability, and, at other moments, it is easy to see why the children love their father so.
The conclusion of The Pumpkin Eater is devastating — precisely because nothing really happens. Jo Armitage drives up to their country home, a windmill recently converted into a private residence. The old windmill without its blades is a potent symbol of the marriage of the Armitages: both are broken and essentially futile. At the end of the film, Jo looks out from the highest window, and for the longest time, we think, perhaps we almost wish, that she will jump. By this point, it seems a rather welcome relief after two hours of misery. But she doesn’t.
The next morning Jo looks out into the plains; she sees the little barn she once shared with her second husband, and thinks of simpler and happier times. We remember the words she spoke earlier, borrowing, in part, from the nameless woman of the hairdresser’s:
There was something we had, for us to keep. I didn’t trust it – now it’s gone. My life is an empty place.
But then, a wall of sound erupts, and Jo’s husband and children are seen approaching from afar. The kids are singing, their little dog is racing along beside the husband and children — the image is not unlike the “perfect” family that Yootha imagines. They enter into the house, looking up to to Jo from the bottom of the staircase. Jo looks down to them from the top. The camera mirrors this difference in view — a gulf in understanding that neither side can quite comprehend. Jake offers Jo a can of milk, and this harks back to another image seen earlier in the film. Then, there was a lightness, and the milk was received with a loving smile. Now, she also smiles, slowly, but her expression is hardly a happy one. It is a smile of acceptance: it is Jo’s acceptance that hers is a family who love and need her. Despite all her troubles, life will, and must, walk on.
The Pumpkin Eater, much like its neurotic heroine Jo Armitage, has suffered a cruel fate. In its day, it was dismissed as an Antonioni knock-off, the British’s (bad) answer to the artsy existentialism of their Mediterranean colleagues. Today, it is unforgivably overlooked, in part, because of its rather inscrutable title. And then there is the actual film itself: an utterly draining two hours. Nevertheless, this is a film that buries itself deep into your heart and mind. You will remember The Pumpkin Eater, and its paradoxical but beautiful combination of surrealism and profound reality, long after the credits finish rolling.