Tuesday, March 23, 2021


"A triple echo is the sound a shotgun blast makes when fired in the country."  

A triple echo is also the sound of the triangular collision of three lives.

I first became aware of the late British director Michael Apted back in the early '70s as the filmmaker responsible for picking up the mantle and expanding upon Paul Almond's groundbreakingly innovative Seven Up! documentary series. Nine in total, these social documentaries spanned 1964 to 2019, chronicling the lives of its original subjects…14 children, each 7 years old…and checking in with them every seven years, from childhood to their 60s.
Over time, Apted established himself in feature films, gaining considerable success, if not Oscar recognition, for the superior celebrity biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and for taking on the James Bond franchise with The World is Not Enough (1999). A 3-time BAFTA winner and recipient of several DGA awards, when Michael Apted died at age 79 on January 7, 2020, he left behind a varied legacy of outstanding films reflective not only of his roots in television and years as a documentarian but his lifelong commitment to exploring the emotional truth of human relationships. 
The latter is a distinguishing characteristic of his impressive feature film debut, The Triple Echo.
Glenda Jackson as Alice Charlesworth

Brian Deacon as Pvt. Barton 

Oliver Reed as Sgt. Arthur

Because The Triple Echo has the confined, minimalist structure of a three-act chamber drama, before I learned that it was based on a 1970 novella by H.E. Bates (co-screenwriter of the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film Summertime), I was under the impression the film was adapted from a stage play. 
The time is WWII, the spring of 1943. The place is a remote farm in a hilly expanse of rural Wiltshire, England. A farm maintained solely and with some difficulty by Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson), a solid, no-nonsense type whose husband is a POW in a Japanese prison camp. Alice’s reconciled solitude is interrupted one day when Barton (Brian Deacon), a young man from a nearby military training camp, accidentally trespasses on her land. Hostile wariness warms to measured affinity when the boyish soldier reveals himself to be a sensitive type enamored of nature, disdainful of authority, and a farmer’s son with a knack for fixing machinery. 
The Triple Echo marks the film debut of television & theater actor Brian Deacon 

From compassion and homesickness, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Out of loneliness and need—him: to forget the war, her: to remember who she was before the war—an incautious romance develops. (The film references but fails to specify the couple’s age difference. In real life, Glenda Jackson is Brian Deacon's senior by 13 years.) 
They spend their extended leave together on the farm. The undisturbed seclusion provides an artificial Eden so lullingly appealing to the discontented squaddy that when the time comes to return to camp, he decides to make his temporary absence a permanent one by deserting and going AWOL. Barton's abrupt decision precipitates an equally hastily-arrived-at solution from Alice: to elude detection and avoid capture, Barton must grow out his hair and nails, dress in women’s clothing, and assume the identity of Jill, a fictional younger sister visiting to help out on the farm. 

Confinement brings unforeseeable conflicts of personality, and almost immediately, their relationship begins to buckle under the day-to-day strain of impersonation, complicity, and apprehension. Alice, implicated in Barton’s desertion yet sensing she’s the only one to grasp its seriousness, grows more fault-finding and resentful as feelings of “caring about” splinter into “being responsible for.” Meanwhile, the battle-resistant Barton, holed up indoors and chafing at the irony of his great escape resulting in only a greater loss of freedom, finds himself embroiled in a battle with himself as he tries to simultaneously suppress and understand what both he and Alice perceive, but cannot find the words to talk about: his subtle, inner responsiveness to externally gender-identifying as a woman.

With its remote farmhouse setting; Alice trudging about in the mud in boots and trousers; and Barton-as-Jill secreted away indoors laboring over the cooking and ironing, it feels more intentional than coincidental that in falling so obligingly (yet acrimoniously) into a traditional gender role dynamic, Alice and Barton’s relationship comes to resemble that of Ellen and Jill (!) in D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novella The Fox. A similarity reinforced by the Freudian emphasis on shotguns in both narratives, and the central conflict in each story being the intrusion of a third party—a fox/male character—whose attentions drive a fateful wedge between (and this is where I think '70s audiences were lost) two women.
The Sergeant (Oliver Reed at his charming-menacing best) and his buddy Stanley (Gavin Richards) make a nuisance of themselves once they discover the remote farmhouse is occupied by a "married crumpet" and her sister

In 2019 Glenda Jackson spoke on the topic of gender while starring on Broadway as King Lear: “When we’re born we teach babies….to be boys or girls. As we get older [she was 82 at the time] those absolute barriers of gender begin to crack.” She went on to observe how, having been just three years old at the start of WWII, she grew up in a world of women. Seeing women participate in every field of endeavor left her heedless of gender limitations. That is until the war ended, the men returned, and women were encouraged (strongly) to go back to assuming more traditional roles.

That the flexible quadrants of gender are a theme explored in the nearly 50-year-old The Triple Echo suggests that Glenda Jackson’s timely comments reflect what has been a career-long interest on her part in taking on roles that explore the entire spectrum of human experience. Whether they be queer identity, gender nonconformity, women’s autonomy, or sexual orientation, a considerable number of Jackson’s films have been about people and relationships that fall outside of the narrow confines of a gender binary paradigm:  Women in Love (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), and controversially, even her interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Hedda (1975). 

Michael Apted’s assured and nuanced The Triple Echo humanely explores a human reality...that long before there were terms like gender dysphoria, long before there was any understanding of assigned gender not always conforming to gender identity, there has been an unarticulated awareness that male-female / masculine-feminine are limited and inadequate qualifiers. That human beings are more complex than the simple roles they are assigned. And there have always been individuals who naturally resist being what the world tells them they must be. 
One of my favorite things about The Triple Echo is that the film refuses to disclose to the viewer any information about the characters that they themselves don't know. So Barton, in his youth, has no real understanding of what he's experiencing, while Alice picks up on things she herself doesn't have the words or sophistication to fully comprehend. The film's emphasis, that we must go on loving those we care about...even when we don't always understand them...is, to me, a profoundly sensitive perspective for a film to have.

I don't know how it performed in the UK, but considering Glenda Jackson’s popularity at the time and the opportunity the film posed to see her reunited with Women in Love co-star Oliver Reed, it's (somewhat) surprising The Triple Echo struggled to find an audience in the US. Today it remains one of Jackson’s least-familiar, least-seen titles, failing—at least to my knowledge—to even get a VHS release.  
Of course, it didn’t help that the poorly-marketed 1972 independent feature didn’t appear in most American markets until 1974, then hoping to ride the publicity coattails of Jackson’s recent Oscar win for A Touch of Class (1973). But by then, The Triple Echo came off as a late-in-the-cycle entry in the early-'70s trend in films exploring transgender and gender identity. Films that were either of the well-intentioned but-sensationalized variety: I Want What I Want (1972), or blatant exploitation: The Christine Jorgensen Story, Dinah East, and Myra Breckinridge--all released in 1970.

The audience for gender exploitation was likely unenthusiastic about Apted’s simple, arthouse approach. The nostalgia crowd was disappointed when the film's age-difference love story didn't turn into Britain's answer to The Summer of ‘42 (1971). And critics, left rudderless due to The Triple Echo arriving on the scene minus the guideposts of prior film festival wins determining its pedigree, didn't know what to make of a movie that was part love story, part unorthodox romantic triangle, part gender-identity character drama, and part nail-biting thriller.

Usually, when I say “Only in the ‘70s” about a film, it’s meant as an affectionate pejorative relating to the decade’s reputation for turning out offbeat, idiosyncratic films that could only have been made during that tiny window of time between the assembly line days of the studio system and the market-research era of the franchise blockbuster.
When I say The Triple Echo is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the ‘70s, I mean it as a badge of honor. With a small budget, minimal cast, and an intimate story that staunchly defies categorization; The Triple Echo feels like anything but sure-fire boxoffice hit material. But very much like a film Michael Apted wanted to make and a story he wanted to tell…market prospects be damned. And THAT is definitely something that could happen only in the ‘70s.
Critics in 1972 never tired of referencing how "unconvincing" Deacon is as a woman. In a rare instance of an informed contemporary mentality working in favor of an older film, to watch The Triple Echo today and catch yourself obsessing over a jawline or a hairdo (bad wigs, however, are fair game) or ideas of "pretty," is to confront how fragile and arbitrary our ideas of masculinity and femininity really are. 

I missed out on seeing The Triple Echo during its original run, finally catching it on TCM just a few short years ago after decades of having had it on my holy grail list of must-see, hard-to-find films. With Glenda Jackson starring, I knew I wasn’t likely to be disappointed, but I didn't expect to be so moved or impressed by a first directorial effort. 
Even as the story veers toward the melodramatic, culminating in the tragic, The Triple Echo maintains an emotional perceptiveness and authentic sense of time and place that give scenes the feel of having been culled from personal memory.

If director Michael Apted and screenwriter Robin Chapman reveal their filmmaking inexperience in a certain overstatement of symbolism (portents of doom abound), and an overreliance on ambiguity in characterization (Glenda Jackson’s complex, fully-inhabited performance tethers the more sketchily-drawn roles of Deacon and Reed); they display an uncommonly deft hand in managing the film’s many shifts in tone and in creating an accompanying atmosphere for the three distinct phases of the story.
In the film's first third, as Alice & Barton get to know one another, the look is sunshiny, and most scenes are set outdoors. The peaceful open spaces are punctuated by reminders of the war: the sight & sound of planes flying overhead, the carcasses of a downed airship overlooking Alice's farm like the eyes of TJ Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby 

The fear of detention spawns a sense of confined imprisonment as emotional estrangement, and claustrophobic interiors characterize the second segment. The oppressively low ceilings and too-close walls are in stark contrast to what came before. The low-angle shot here not only calls attention to the lovers braced coldly with their backs to one another but also places Barton's lengthened hair and long painted nails in the forefront.

The third and final act, representing the completion of the triangle and the introduction of Sgt. Arthur's fateful dominance in the narrative, takes us back to the outdoors. But now the look is wintry, the atmosphere dark, stormy, and threatening.

What if who you think you're pretending to be is who you really are? 

There’s a scene early in The Triple Echo where Alice sees Barton out of his military uniform for the first time and comments on his looking so different: “I’m a master of disguise,”  he says. A throwback reference to an even earlier scene in which, after Alice remarks that he doesn’t look much like a farmer’s son, Barton complains of having been “made” into a soldier by the Army. 
So much of life is being who we have to be, what we're told to be, and what we're expected to be, it feels like a genuine stroke of luck if any of those align with who we actually are. 
Michael Apted has crafted a finely-observed film that, at times, feels like the most heartfelt fable about the subtle tyranny of identities assigned and roles assumed, 
With Glenda Jackson giving what I think is one of her best and most underrated performances, it may have taken me almost 50 years to see The Triple Echo, but I say in all sincerity that I know I'm able to appreciate it more today than I ever could in the '70s.

The Triple Echo opened in Los Angeles without much fanfare on April 17, 1974 at the Music Hall Theater. 
In a move not uncommon in the days before home video and DVDs, The Triple Echo was re-released some four years later in September of 1978, this time at the bottom half of an arthouse double bill (paired with Chabrol’s Dirty Hands) and christened with the fuck-all, act-of-desperation title: Soldier in Skirts.  
Lotsa Larfs & Sex
It's difficult to imagine how anyone thought it a good idea to market
 Michael Apted's somber character drama as a proto-Bosom Buddies comedy.
Misconceived, misguided, and blatantly misleading.

The first thing I ever saw actor Brian Deacon in was John Schlesinger's 1983 HBO telefilm adaptation of Separate Tables with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Before then I only knew of him as the husband of Rock Follies star and oft-parodied VO5 hairspray TV commercial pitchwoman Rula Lenska (the pair wed in 1977, divorced in 1987).

The Triple Echo is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021