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Cinema Experiences: Term of Trial

Posted in - cinema experiences, laurence olivier, reviews on March 30th 2011 11 Comments

In the 1960s, Laurence Olivier successfully bridged the gap from studio films to the British New Wave with his performance as Archie Rice in the 1960 Tony Richardson film The Entertainer. Two years later he continued his string of “ordinary” characters by playing Graham Weir in Peter Glenville’s Term of Trial, which was screened at the BFI last night as part of their Projecting the Archive series. Jo Botting, the curator of fiction at the BFI archive, gave an introduction before the film. She read excerpts from Sarah Miles’ autobiography and talked about how the film was received upon its initial release.

Term of Trial is one of Olivier’s lesser-known films and, much like in William Wyler’s Carrie (1951), he delivers a quietly powerful and underrated performance as an alcoholic school teacher in gritty northern England who becomes the object of one of his female students’ affection. Graham Weir, despite being a genuinely nice man who wants to change students’ lives for the better through his teaching, is accused of sexual assault when he rejects the advances of young Shirley Taylor (played brilliantly by an 18 year old Sarah Miles in her first film role), his prized pupil. Shirley is so enraged and hurt by Mr. Weir’s rejection that she brings false claims against her once revered teacher. Graham is in a lose-lose situation all around. At home, his nagging, selfish wife (Simone Signoret) accuses him of not being man enough to give her the life she thinks she deserves. He is frustrated at school by the defiance of a trouble-making student (Terrence Stamp), and the accusations brought against him cost him the coveted job of head schoolmaster.

It seems that many people found–and still find–Olivier miscast as Weir, but I thought it one of his best performances. Subdued yet sympathetic throughout most of the film, Olivier the great stage actor breaks free when he is given full reign of the scene when Graham stands accused in court. All of his sublimated emotions and frustrations suddenly explode (we get a glimpse of something boiling beneath the surface in a previous scene when his wife’s comments cause him to violently slap her across the face). Paul Dehn, critic for the Daily Herald said of Olivier’s performance in the courtroom scene:

“Olivier’s own long speech from the dock is a piece of inarticulate agonising as unforgettably delivered as the best of his Shakespearean soliliquies.”

I urge anyone who mistakenly accuses Olivier as being nothing but a hack or ham actor to reconsider his performances in this film as well as in Carrie.

Term of Trial has an all-around strong cast. Simone Signoret was, as always, tough as nails. I had the opportunity to see Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques the previous evening and was blown away by her performance as a school teacher who helps to murder her colleague’s headmaster husband (with whom she was also having an affair). Sarah Miles was surprisingly very good as Shirley and more than held her own opposite her acting idol. Miles also claims to have had an on and off affair with Olivier that started during filming and lasted for several years. I had only seen her previously in David Lean’s Irish epic Ryan’s Daughter and didn’t think much of her at the time; my mistake. Terrence Stamp (also in his first film role) plays the thug character to perfection, the incarnation of so many angry young men of the period.

What I love about Olivier was his ability to develop his acting style through different filmic periods. From matinee studio idol to Shakespearean expert, everyday average Joe to supporting player in later years. It’s always a pleasure to see the range of his film acting. There are people who insist he was best on stage, and perhaps he was, but he was also a damn good film actor, and that’s all we have left. Let’s appreciate his films while we can.

As of now (11) people have had something to say...

  • Ric - Reply

    March 30, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Wonder if “Term of trial” has ever premeired on TCM?

    • Kendra - Reply

      March 30, 2011 at 12:01 pm

      I’m pretty sure I remember seeing it in the TCM listings before.

  • Matilde - Reply

    March 30, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    True,in both”Carrie” and “Term of trial” Olivier gave superb and subdued performances (by the way, in both he has his life ruined by a woman..) but I also adore his performance in “Love among the ruins” in later years and even his cameo as Lord Dowding in “Battle of Britain”, As a matter of fact , I always love watching him perform but I do agree that, apart from Heathcliff and Shakespeare, these are probably his greatest performances on film. also because they show him in a diffferent light.
    And – splendid as Mason e Lancaster were in their roles-what a pity not having him as Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita and Visconti’s “Il Gattopardo”!

  • Sylvia Kodis - Reply

    April 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    First of all, let me say I love this film. Despite what the critics said, I thought Larry’s performance was outstanding. The court room scene when he delivers his passionate plea to the court has to be one of his best performances.
    As far as his alleged affair with Sarah Milles, Terry Coleman’s bio on Larry says it was on and off between 1960 and 1962. They occasionally got together after that in later years. Makes me think he married Joan just so he could have the children he most desperately wanted.
    As far as Tarquin is concerned, I read somewhere that Larry had told him about Sarah, but Tarquin doesn’t mention it in his book about his dad. I saw an interview with Larry’s other son Richard after his death and Richard seemed annoyed that Sarah mentions it in her bio, he doesn’t seem to take much stock in what she said.
    One last thought, in the cafe scene, even though they’re acting, when Larry chuckles at Sarah’s affection for him, he does seem like he had a thing for her!

  • kbrobeck - Reply

    April 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Why did He get so stagey/ Aftr R III, he nevr was very good on film again? ?

    • Kendra - Reply

      April 7, 2011 at 12:39 am

      have you seen term of trial? or marathon man?

  • kbrobeck - Reply

    May 17, 2011 at 12:09 am

    I stand corrected. I’d forgotten how much I liked ‘Term of Trial’

  • Suzi - Reply

    April 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve never seen this movie, but plan on watching it on TCM tonight. I’ve had a crush on SLO ever since seeing “Wuthering Heights” in High School (1976) and have loved him ever since. The way he speaks, looks, everything was superb. Cannot wait to see it!

  • Rosamund Forbes - Reply

    April 4, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    I saw Term of Trial in the early 60’s at the cinema. I think that Olivier could had an affair with Sarah Miles as i read in a book on LO that Joan Plowright had gone to the studio where it was being made to see LO as i think she suspected something was going on with LO and SM. She had not long before had LO’s son Richard. I think that the affair with LO went on for many years i don’t think SM was telling stories myself. LO i believe had quite a few affairs within his marriages including with Dorothy Tutin and Claire Bloom. I also think that LO found the prospect of fatherhood quite daunting as Joan Plowright was pregnant four times within about six years . JP nearly lost her life with the third child and had a miscarriage a year or so before. LO was over 50 years old when the first child arrived. I don’t really know how the marriage was but i had read that he was separated from JP towards the end of his life and they lived separate lives from each other. Although LO married three times in my opinion his first love was his acting not saying he didn’t love his wives but i think his career as an actor was his whole world and he lived to entertain the public. Term of Trial is a good film i think but i haven’t seen it on TV since it was released in the 60’s.

  • Tony - Reply

    April 28, 2015 at 7:43 am

    I have a friend who was an extra in this movie. He is in the original / full version of 130 mins, but most versions are the cut version of 113 mins. If anyone knows how / where to get a copy of the full version, I would be most grateful. Thanks in advance.

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