Saturday, November 19, 2022

Sky West and Crooked (1966) revisited

Sky West and Crooked is a movie I’ve seen quite a few times and I reviewed it here years ago. It’s a movie that strikes me slightly differently each time I see it but it always entrances me. It was released in the US under the misleading but undoubtedly more commercial title Gypsy Girl.

This was very much a Mills family project. Sir John Mills was the director (this is the only film he directed). His wife Mary Hayley Bell wrote the original story and co-wrote the screenplay. Their daughter Hayley Mills is the star.

This was a transitional movie for Hayley Mills. She was eighteen at the time and although she had certainly made grown-up movies before this this was her first really grown-up role as an actress. Or, almost grown-up. This is (among other things) a coming-of-age movie and the character she plays, Brydie White, is a seventeen-year-old girl who is a young woman but emotionally still in many ways a child.

It’s one of several movies in which Hayley Mills played girls who were either troubled or a little odd. I don’t think any other actress has ever handled such roles so skilfully.

Brydie lives in a small rather sleepy English village. There’s a reason she’s odd and that reason is explained to us in a kind of prologue. Two small children, a boy and a girl, are playing. There’s an accident and the boy is killed. We know that it was purely an accident but nobody in the village knows the exact circumstances. The girl was Brydie. She has no memory of the accident but it left her with some emotional disturbance. The consensus in the village is that she’s all sky west and crooked which is apparently a term that was at one time used in some parts of England to describe someone who is a bit touched in the head.

Opinions in the village are divided. Most people think Brydie is strange but perfectly harmless but there are others who seem to think that one day she’ll turn into an axe murderess or that she’ll come to a bad end in some other way.

Brydie is obsessed with death. She is obsessed with graveyards. She’s managed to communicate her obsession to the village children.

Her mother has no idea how to handle her and takes solace in the bottle.

Brydie is growing up and there are men in the village who are starting to notice that she’s becoming an attractive young woman. One of the men who has noticed is a young gypsy, Roibin (Ian McShane). It’s obvious that there is a strong mutual attraction between Roibin and Brydie and it’s obvious (to the horror of some of the villagers) that the attraction on both sides is strongly sexual. It’s clearly destined to be a love that is going to encounter some major obstacles.

This movie shares a lot of thematic elements with an earlier Hayley Mills movie, Whistle Down the Wind. That’s no accident. Both movies are based on stories by Mary Hayley Bell. Both movies deal in an oblique but interesting way with religious questions. I don’t think either movie could be described as a Christian movie and to be honest I’m not even entirely sure whether Mary Hayley Bell was a believer. But she was certainly interested in religious questions. In Whistle Down the Wind she explores themes of salvation and redemption while Sky West and Crooked deals with death, and the ways in which people deal with death. Both movies are perhaps more about the nature of belief than about religion as such.

There is however much more to Sky West and Crooked. There’s also a love story, and a very good one. There is the coming-of-age angle. Going from being a child to being a woman is hard enough for any girl but for Brydie it’s even harder.

It’s also a movie that to some extent deals with the way people who are seen as outsiders are treated. Roibin is a gypsy, Brydie is slightly mad, so they’re both outsiders. But there’s no strident social or political messaging in this movie. Some of the characters are narrow-minded but they’re not demonised; they are not portrayed as bad people. Their own fears and anxieties, their own shame and guilt, cause them to behave in an intolerant manner. They’re ordinary and in many ways decent people. They’re just scared, and they’re weak. They’re not evil.

It’s also clear that the anxiety the villagers feel about Brydie is at least partly a fear of Brydie’s awakening sexuality. Brydie is becoming a woman with a woman’s emotions and sexuality but she doesn’t have the normal array of repressions and unrepressed female sexuality certainly scares a lot of people.

John Mills does a fine job as director. He wisely doesn’t try anything fancy - this is a character-driven movie and he has a great cast and his main task is to let the actors shine.

Ian McShane is very good. Annette Crosbie as Brydie’s mother is superb. It’s a nicely nuanced performance. Mrs White is an alcoholic and a bit of a nervous wreck but she’s fundamentally a kind person. Geoffrey Bayldon is excellent as the slightly ineffectual but good-natured vicar, a man who is normally weak but who can be strong when he really feels there is something important at stake.

Look out for Jacqueline Pearce is a small role as a fiery gypsy girl.

Of course the movie belongs to Hayley Mills. She gives a delightfully subtle quirky sensitive performance, funny at time and occasionally slightly disturbing. I will never understand why this performance failed to gain her a Best Actress Oscar.

Sky West and Crooked is odd and quirky and although it deals with some serious themes it remains good-natured. There’s plenty of gentle humour. It’s all done with a very light touch. There’s no heavy-handed messaging and it can be enjoyed as a humorously unconventional love story. It’s the sort of offbeat movie that just doesn’t get made any more. If you’re a Hayley Mills fan it’s a must-see. Very highly recommended.

I’m on a bit of a Hayley Mills kick at the moment, having recently watched her in The Chalk Garden and Whistle Down the Wind (both of which are very much worth seeing). And I reviewed her brilliant movie debut Tiger Bay (1959) a while back as well.

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