A film like Betrayal is trapped by time, but not in the usual sense of datedness. The love triangle subject, between Jerry (Jeremy Irons) and Emma (Patricia Hodge) the wife of Jerry’s best friend Robert (Ben Kingsley) is about as timeless as any story can be. And while the surroundings reveal some out of date fashions, they are not so obvious that they invite knowing laughter. At that level, in fact, it is interesting how little has changed since 1983.
Nonetheless, this kind of intelligent, well-mounted, literate drama about educated, upper-middle-class characters has fallen so thoroughly out of favor that it feels as if it comes from another world. Before rushing to judgment, however, or patronizing Betrayal as camp, we should recognize that its other-worldliness may result from our being so battered by populist commercialism that we have forgotten how to respond to a film in which characters can express themselves fluently. (Academics, who might be expected to be more sympathetic, have their own political reasons for denigrating such work.)
Part of the problem is that, based on a semi-autobiographical play by Harold Pinter, the film is unabashedly an actor’s showcase. The film making is smart, but there is nothing to trumpet director David Jones’s technical sophistication. His considerable skill is quiet, recessive, undemonstrative—qualities guaranteed to leave cold those who prefer to be zapped like Pavlov’s dogs.
Viewed sympathetically, however, you can recognize the contrapuntal complexity that the players contribute to the material. Pinter gives actors the chance to burrow into and winnow through the dialog, to play with and revel in what is not said, through the choice of words, gestures, inflections and, of course, his famous pauses. Ironically, this indirect method suggests that Pinteresque drama is cinematic in the sense that you have to watch carefully, or miss what is going on. Instead of just moving the plot along, the dialog demonstrates the expressive potential of talking a lot while saying very little.
In the famous lunch scene, for example, the conversation between Jerry and Robert is utterly banal. And yet, thanks to the way it is handled, you recognize not only what is being avoided, but that the price of that avoidance is an extreme tension which is never named, confronted or even recognized by the characters as they struggle with their unspoken feelings.
To be sure, under even the best circumstances, material like that in Betrayal is not for everyone. The hyper-articulate characters are selfish and unattractive, their lives cosseted, their problems self-inflicted. And as with any tautly written drama, it is difficult not to wonder whether anyone, anytime, anywhere ever spoke this well, which is really to ask the broader question of how close to “real life” art must be to be acceptable? That may be the problem at the heart of Betrayal: the glib surfaces are all-too believable; under the hood, though, a well-tuned engine purrs with all the convenience of convention.