Rita, Sue and Bob Too

January 21, 2011
Michelle Holmes, George Costigan, Siobhan Finneran

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is easily the year’s most off-the-wall movie, a weird and uncategorizable comedy that never quite goes where you expect it to. It’s slightly reminiscent of the current Wish You Were Here, being also a British film about the sexual awakening of girlhood, but it’s utterly in its own original style.

Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes) are two plain-speaking English lassies just about finished with their high school education. They live in a town in the North of England, where the beauty of the countryside contrasts oddly with the rundown, prefabricated look of their planned community.

They’re two regular gals, struggling unremarkably through life. After a baby-sitting job one night, they’re given a lift home by Bob (George Costigan), an unhappily married man. Bob drives the girls to a dark place and quizzes them about sex. They don’t know much about the subject, but they’re game to try.

There ensues a raucous, moonstruck ménage a trois, played for laughs and viewed by the girls as dumb fun. They carry on this triangle through the weeks ahead, but Bob’s wife (Lesley Sharp) is getting suspicious.

Then, a series of unexpected turns: Bob’s wife leaves him, Rita moves in with Bob, Sue move in with a Pakistani boy (Kulvinder Ghir). But the central situation remains this nutty triangle, and its unapologetic participants.

At any moment during this movie, you expect it to suddenly turn serious, force its characters to confront reality, punish them for their sins.

Never happens. The film goes gleefully on its unpredictable way, refusing to stop and moralize.

The director, Alan Clarke, has worked for years in British television. (His most famous previous achievement was a controversial BBC program called Scum.) Clarke uses lengthy camera takes, and constantly allows his characters to define their movements and inflections in an almost improvisational way. Sometimes, in its own salty, irreverent fashion, this is reminiscent of the directorial generosity of Jean Renoir.

Andrea Dunbar’s script displays a marvelous ear for working-class dialogue. And in the actors, Clarke has worked wonders. The three principals don’t look like actors; they look like the sorts of people you’d find trapped in small-town circumstances.

It’s hard to classify a film like this. But in its mad exuberance, I found it one of the most liberating movies of the year.

First published in the Herald, September 17, 1987

Unless you’re in Britain, Alan Clarke is not a familiar name, and his movies and TV projects were hard to find; maybe they still are. David Thomson champions him in the Biographical Dictionary of Film. Clarke died in 1990, the same year as Andrea Dunbar, whose screenplay began life as a play written when she was very young. She wrote three plays, all about the same dreary location, which she apparently never escaped (she was 29 when she died). There’s more about her life in this link; it isn’t pretty.