Term of Trial is the latest in the "slice of treacle" series of British movies: each drips with middle-class realism, each shows the struggles of a Prometheus figure against his sordid environment. Sir Laurence Olivier and High Griffith guarantee some high points in acting. But it is difficult to see why the Venice Film Festival awarded a prize to director and author Peter Glenville; for the ultimate in realism, toward which Glenville strives, is also the ultimate dramatic defect-dullness.
Our Prometheus this time is a sensitive and dedicated teacher, Graham Weir (Oliver). His woes include a nagging wife, (Simone Signoret), a prison record for conscientious objection to World War Two, and a classroom full of monsters and hoodlums. One pleasant fellow in particular, Mitchell(Terence Stamp), has teacher assaulted by thugs when he feels slighted. Long suffering Weir refuses to "bash the little beggars," as more practical colleagues suggest; his code of sensitivity and non-violence is at length rewarded when two pupils show genuine signs of intellectual curiosity.
Ah, but both proselytes are betrayed by their family background. Young Thompson's mother is taking on with a lodger, and in destroying the lover's symbol of superiority, his car, the lad is badly burned. Fifteen-year-old Shirley (Sarah Miles) has been starved of love by her family; she lets a gentleness on Weir's part toward her desires to learn kindle a puerile passion for him. The passion must be dashed, and the result is an unpleasant trial of the teacher for indecent assault. Acquittal does not save Prometheus's reputation, and Weir is forced to destroy one principle, truth, to save even his marriage. The camera moves in for a close-up of the famous Olivier face, furrowed with the look of infinite sadness but eternal resignation. Cut.
The plot is dreary enough, but Glenville is not satisfied until he has investigated every low aspect of life. A good fourth of the film is spent in tracing foot motions through bars, murky corridors, sleezy alleys. Even symbolism raises its heavy head: a train rushes by into the night as the prelude to the crisis scene between Shirley and Weir in his bedroom. The dialogue is so prosaic that it is often funny; a tense verbal duel in bed between Olivier and Signoret got more laughs than the presumably witty "Arabic" interchange in Manchurian Candidate.
Olivier is the sole ace in this nearyarborough, but he is superb. After all, he's been playing Prometheus in various guises since Richard III, and Weir is a worthy successor to Archie Rice of The Entertainer. The high point of the film is his accusation from the dock, an indictment of English life for being stuffy, unsympathetic, and dirty-minded, as powerful a speech in its way as was the song "Why Should I Bother to Care?" that Rice sang in the other film. Sir Laurence points up the full character of the schoolteacher so well that at times the surrounding players seem wooden and semi-caricatures; only Terence Stamp and Hugh Griffith come even close to the featured player.
The advertisements proclaim "a fifteen-year-old, leading a man to destruction," but the tenor of all this "destruction" is pretty tame. As in so many cases, there is more going on in the theatre than on the screen by way of titillation. Audiences which are sent into paroxysms by angry young man films or the Italian realists may feel edified by Term of Trial; I am inclined to join with Shirley's roommate in a plaintive, "Give me some action!"