The Spoils of Poynton (1970)

Henry James CollectionThis 1970 BBC version of the Henry James classic The Spoils of Poynton begins with houseguests Mrs Gereth (Pauline Jameson) and Fleda Vetch (Gemma Jones) meeting at Waterbath, the ostentatious home of Mrs Brigstock (June Ellis) and her daughter Mona (Diane Fletcher). The houseguests meet by accident as both women marvel at the bad taste of  the Brigstocks blatantly displayed through the various garish ornaments and stuffed birds that litter every corner of the house. Mrs Gereth tries to tease criticisms of the Brigstocks’ taste from Miss Vetch and confesses that she’s there to meet Mona, her son Owen’s (Ian Ogilvy) love interest.

Just as Mrs Gereth can’t stand the Brigstock’s decor, neither can she stand Mona, but the weak-willed Owen is too besotted with Mona to take any notice of his indomitable mother. The implication is that Owen would probably normally bend to his mother’s wishes, but in this instance he’s come under the spell of an equally formidable woman. Mrs Gereth is convinced that if Owen marries Mona, then Mona will ruin Poynton’s elegance by bringing her own appalling taste to the house.

Sensing that the delicate, introverted Miss Vetch has good taste, Mrs Gereth invites her to Poynton, one of two houses she owns, ostensibly to show her the house and its treasures. It’s soon clear that Miss Vetch loves Poynton and its contents with the same sort of reverence as Mrs Gereth–a woman who’s spent her lifetime collecting treasures for the house. But there’s another reason Mrs Gereth has invited Miss Vetch. Mrs Gereth acknowledges that when it comes to preserving Poynton she has a vicious streak, and her plan is to shove Miss Vetch  into Owen’s path and divert him from Mona.

The plan to sever Owen from Mona becomes an imperative after Mona’s visit to Poynton. Mona is there to visit before she gives Owen an answer to his recent marriage proposal, and this includes her assessment of Poynton as her possible future home.  While Mona makes suitable noises about Poynton’s grandeur she also lets slip plans for substantial change.

As the film’s title implies–a battle ensues over the Spoils of Poynton, and Owen’s affections become the battleground for Poynton and its contents. Owen’s desires fade into the background as his mother battles for ‘what’s best for Owen’ and that of course is coincidentally what’s best for her and will ensure that Poynton remains intact. Owen is like a ball tossed around by these three equally steely women–Mrs Gereth, Mona and even Miss Vetch although her mettle isn’t obvious until the plot develops.

This is a marvellous and sensitive story brought to life by an incredible screenplay and superb acting. All the subtle nuances of character and human motivation remain intact and at times as the struggle for power sways one way and then another, sympathies too shift. At first, Mrs Gereth seems just to be a selfish snob who places too much emphasis on possessions, but then it becomes clear that Poynton is a physical embodiment of the past life she shared with her husband. And this certainly explains why Poynton is more like a musuem than a home. Similarly, at first Mona is seen as just a loud-mouthed bossy woman who happens to have bad taste, and yet in her struggle for power and control of Owen, Mona is prepared to go just as far as necessary to win. And then there’s Miss Vetch–a woman who falls in love with a house but then seems strangely reticent when it comes to physical passion. Finally there’s Owen–a weak willed pliable man who remains largely confused and used by the passions, jealousy, steely moral decisions and seething desires of ownership that define the women in his life.

The Spoils of Poynton is part of the Henry James Collection.

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