Memoirs of a Survivor (1981)


UK. 1981.


Director – David Gladwell, Screenplay – David Gladwell & Kerry Crabbe, Based on the Novel by Doris Lessing, Producers – Penny Clark & Michael Medwin, Photography – Walter Lassally, Music – Mike Thorne, Special Effects – Effects Associates, Production Design – Keith Wilson. Production Company – EMI/Memorial


Julie Christie (D), Leonie Mellinger (Emily Cartwright), Christopher Guard (Gerald), Debbie Hutchings (June)


In a near future where England lies in desolate ruin after economic collapse, D, a middle-aged survivor, agrees to share her apartment with a teenage girl Emily. Soon Emily falls for Gerald, a boy her own age who runs a self-sufficient commune for children and moves in with him. However, Emily is unable to see through Gerald’s failings and impractical ideals that are clearly apparent to D. Meanwhile, D finds that she is able to walk through her apartment wall back in time to observe a Victorian family where another girl also named Emily does not fit in.

The British but Persian (Iranian)-born, Rhodesian (Zimbabwean)-raised Doris Lessing is an author of considerable acclaim in literary circles. Emerging in the 1950s, Lessing wrote autobiographical works about her African childhood, which, in her outspoken support for repressed Black minorities, had her banned as an undesirable from both Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as various fictional explorations of women’s role in modern society. Quite a portion of her work resides in the science-fiction genre, although it is science-fiction that appears to be read almost anywhere except by science-fiction fans. Lessing is a Sufi follower and much of her genre work is preoccupied with allegorical tales of the quest for spiritual enlightenment. I must admit to being one who found Lessing turgidly impenetrable and gave up after the attempt to wade my way through her Canopus in Argus series. This film comes based on Doris Lessing’s novel of the same name Memoirs of a Survivor (1974).

Memoirs of a Survivor is what one might kindly call a flawed film. It feels like former editor David Gladwell having come along twenty years too late for the French New Wave – indeed, the time travel scenes remind a good deal of the New Wave film Je T’aime, Je T’aime (1968). There are some nicely achieved images of a desolate England with the film defying standard post-holocaust images and instead showing bleak concrete streets, litter being blown everywhere and people in worn clothing. The climax of the film where Christopher Guard emerges from the subway with the savage children who then proceed to go berserk in the perfect order of his commune is potent. There is also an effectively brooding score.

But what the hell does it all mean? What have the time travel sequences to do with anything? Are they in fact time travel or just in Julie Christie’s imagination? What is the connection between the Emily in the past and the Emily in the future who is obviously far too young to have been born back in the Victorian era? Julie Christie’s character suffers from a blankness and lack of definition and we are certainly given no insight into her. The ending with everybody worshipping a giant egg that appears in Christie’s apartment and she escaping from the present into it with the children is too absurd for belief. The overall message that these scenes seem to convey – the contrast of a present/future where social cohesion has run down vs a sentimentally presented Victorian world where social order is held together by conservative notions of family – seems only simplistically reduced.

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