The revolutionary British New Wave films of the early 1960s were celebrated for their uncompromising depictions of working-class lives and relations between the sexes. Directed by Tony Richardson, a leading light of that movement, and based on one of the most controversial plays of its time, A Taste of Honey stars Rita Tushingham, in a star-making debut role, as a disaffected teenager finding her way amid the economic desperation of industrial Manchester, and despite an absent, self-absorbed mother. With its unapologetic identification with social outcasts and its sensitive, modern approach to matters of sexuality and race, Richardson’s classic is a still startling benchmark work of realism.
'A Taste of Honey' was certainly a milestone in filmmaking back in the early 1960s for British cinema. Not only did it win big awards at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but it also won a few BAFTA awards in 1961. In addition to those golden awards, this film had the "kitchen sink realism" aspect to it, which more or less meant that in the entertainment and arts scene, there was usually a protagonist that was a bitter and angry character where society looked down upon them due to their sexual nature or race.
In 'A Taste of Honey', this came into play with one of the first mainstream gay characters in British films, in addition to a main black character. The film was ahead of its time for sure and perfectly captured the era in time in England, where most women were looking for rich and powerful men to take care of them in order to get off the dirty streets. Writer Shelagh Delaney wrote the stage play of the same name and had director Tony Richardson direct the stage version, which they both teamed up again as writer and director for the film version. The result is a stunning and very realistic portrayal of a relationship of a mother and daughter and their different lovers in a poor neighborhood in England in the 1950s.
Having these taboo and unusual relationships on screen back then was certainly not commonplace, but how the characters and story were captured and performed to the masses, definitely catapulted these social issues front and center. Taking place in a run down neighborhood of Salford, we follow a young teenage girl named Jo (Rita Tushingham) and her alcoholic mess of a mother Helen (Dora Bryan) who don't exactly have a great relationship. Jo needs a mother figure around, but Helen is mostly just interested in finding a perfect, wealthy suitor to take care of her, then in turn she can tend to Jo, but life gets in the way with shady men. As Helen is with her current guy, who looks like he will be "the one", Helen puts Jo on the back-burner, left to fend for her young self.
This is when Jo meets a black sailor named Jimmy (Paul Danquah), who the two fall in love, but it's short lived as he sets sail again. Soon, Jo finds out she's pregnant and has nobody to turn to, which is when she meets Geoff (Murray Melvin), a gay man who promises to look after her and be her roommate until she finds somebody to take care of her, since her mother is non-existent at the moment. Delaney and Richardson certainly bring things full circle with Helen and Jo with some humor and good drama throughout, which makes it easier for the harsher scenes to play out better for audiences.
The real spotlight here though is the performances and relationship with Jo and Geoff, which Richardson and Delaney capture perfectly on screen. They both know that their situation is looked down upon in society, but on film they are showed as regular people who just like each other, even with the age difference, which is such a delight to see. Their performances were incredible and were well deserving of the awards they received. Richardson and cinematographer Walter Lassally shot a lot of the film on location in real buildings in the city, using a handheld camera to give that realistic and gritty impression of the time, which added more depth to the film, which also left a lasting impression for more than fifty years.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Taste of Honey' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion and is Region A Locked. There is a Criterion booklet with an essay by Colin MacCabe and cast, crew and technical information on the film. The disc is housed in a hard clear, plastic case with spine #829.
'A Taste of Honey' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed, while most jitter, flicker, dirt, grain, and noise were fixed. Fifty five years in and Criterion has done an excellent job with his video transfer. The image looks excellent and fresh.
There is great detail, particularly in the well lit sequences outdoors. Darker sequences also look amazing too, revealing some nice facial features and hairs in closeups. Wider shots also look good throughout. There are some fluctuations with depth and grain, but this is a source issue and not a problem with the new transfer. The black and white color palette is well balanced with varying degrees of grays and whites, which always look great. There were a couple of rough transitions, but overall, this is an excellent video presentation that gives this old film new life.
This release comes with a LPCM 1.0 mix and according to the Criterion booklet, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm sound negative. This soundscape is realistic and natural, however due to the time period and 1.0 mono track, the mix is not that immersive or powerful.
That being said, each sound effect, ambient noise in the city are well balanced and layered to give a full sound. Dialogue is always clear and easy to follow, and free of any pops, cracks, hiss, and shrills.
Interview with Tony Richardson (HD, 15 Mins.) - This interview is from the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and has director Tony Richardson talking about making the film, the themes, tone, performances, and style he used here. Excellent interview.
'Momma Don't Allow' 1955 (HD, 22 Mins.) - This is a documentary made by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz that was film at the Wood Green Jazz Club in London.
Interview with Rita Tushingham (HD, 19 Mins.) - This interview was conducted in 2016 for this Criterion release that has actor Rita Tushingham discussing how the film sparked her career, working with the other actors and director, the on location shooting, and women in film in the specific time period.
Interview with Murray Melvin (HD, 19 Mins.) - This interview was also conducted in 2016 for this Criterion release, as actor Murray Melvin discusses his film resume, working on the film with the director and other actors, and gay British cinema.
Remaking British Theater (HD, 22 Mins.) - This interview was also conducted in 206 for this Criterion release, as theater expert Kate Dorney talks about the significance and importance of 'A Taste of Honey' on film as well as on stage. She discusses the theater in the 1950s as well censorship from the time period.
Interview with Walter Lassally (HD, 20 Mins.) - This interview is from 1998, where cinematographer Walter Lassally talks about shooting the film, mostly with different types of film stock, the lighting, cameras that were used, and the on location sets.
Interview with Shelagh Delaney (HD, 16 Mins.) - This is a vintage interview from 1960, which aired on a TV series called 'Close-Up', where the author and playwright of the story talks about her life and the film.
Criterion Booklet - This is the Criterion Booklet for the movie with an essay by Colin MacCabe and cast, crew and technical information on the film.
'A Taste of Honey' is a milestone in filmmaking, especially in British cinema, as it brought a ton of social issues and taboo subjects to the spotlight. The performances are all excellent and the on location shooting with handheld cameras adds to the realism of the story. The video and audio presentations are both top notch and the extras are incredible. Needless to say, Criterion has knocked this out of the park with this new 4K restoration and comes Highly Recommended!