The upper class rarely get what they deserve. Their piggish greed and decadent desires often give way to maltreatment, harm and collective suffering. Unfortunately for those that’re hurt by them, they have the security blanket of wealth to hide the consequences away, swept under the rug, out of sight and out of mind. This unequal relationship between the classes is a peculiar one, as although the upper-class operate as though they live in worlds away from the working-class, the reality is, they walk upon a bedrock founded by them. So, when Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey open the cracks in the bedrock, The Servant explores the void that threatens to swallow the upper-class up.
Adapted from Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella, wealthy Londoner Tony (a fresh-faced James Fox) moves into a new Knightsbridge house, and hires the assistance of man-servant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Tony and Hugo get on like a house on fire, initially, and why wouldn’t they? Every decadent toff requires a faithful butler to scurry hither and thro, awaiting their commands. However, from the outset, something just feels off about Barrett. During his interview with Tony, his facial muscles tense and relax from moment-to-moment, as though gripped by an intense anxiety. He never takes his eyes off Tony, constantly scanning and assessing his responses. He almost feels too perfect as a man-servant, a perfect facsimile of Tony’s desired individual – his affluent girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) feels the same, trying in vain to dismiss him. But Pinter keeps the relational tension razor-sharp; Susan is actively hostile and suspicious of Barrett, but this animosity may come from notions of superiority, and prejudices against those lower than her.
Barrett only becomes more of an enigma as the relationship between man-servant and master begins to blur, through the inclusion of Barrett’s “sister”, Vera (Sarah Miles). Something is afoot, not is all as it seems, but concluding what is this constant itch at the back of your mind. Barrett doesn’t just keep Tony guessing, but us as well. The Servant at times feels like it paints with shades of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, seen from the other lens –it’s easy to root the working-class Kim family, but Barrett’s ambiguity pervades your mind, blocking you from understanding him. You can’t help but feel as though it’s intentional, and thus you’re constantly on the back foot just as Tony is. He’s a masterfully written character that only becomes more complex as he integrates himself into the house. What’s clear is the complex power dynamic between Barrett and Tony that’s amplified – despite Barrett’s supposed subservience and lower-class status to Tony, Tony is entirely dependent on Barrett. Barrett tends the house, ensures Tony’s fed, his clothes cleaned, among a plethora of other chores – without Barrett, Tony’s upper-class lifestyle would be in disarray. And Barrett knows that precisely.
Barrett is a metaphorical paradox within Tony’s house – he designed, decorates and maintains it yet only can call one room his own. It’s as though he gradually infects the very walls of the house itself, turning it over to him slowly, like a fungus creeping through. Gradually, this infection spreads to Tony as well, warping the relationship between the two. We begin to see Tony lose his grip not just on Barrett, but his house, and ultimately, himself. Despite the affluent decadence of Tony, you can’t help but feel pity for him as he’s gradually consumed by this Machiavellian trickster – Tony’s own actions and lifestyle are what lead him into Barrett’s web, and yet he’s completely blind to it. Whenever speaking with Susan about Barrett, Barrett’s value is always relational to Tony, despite his ironic pleas of Barrett’s humanity. Her dismissals of Barrett are perceived as slights on Tony’s judgement and intelligence, making it his ego that keeps Barrett around above all. It is that very narcissism that Pinter, and Barrett, use to destroy Tony.
The Servant unravels at a gorgeous pace, with beautiful lengths of silence punctuating the film’s most tense moments – whether it be a dripping tap’s sonic similarity to a beating heart, or the icy-cold stare of Barrett, sucking the air out of the room. What isn’t said is almost, if not more, powerful than what is said, especially as Barrett almost begins to morph into a pseudo-Tony, taking and taking from the wealthy Londoner until he gradually becomes a husk. Despite this triumph of the working-class over the upper, it still feels strangely wrong – that’s where the brilliance of The Servant lies. It refuses to give you comfort in identifying with any of its quartet of characters, instead allowing moments of both empathy and disgust in equal measure. It’s as though each breath a toxic air of corruption that fills the rooms, hallways and columns of that Knightsbridge flat.
The Servant is a true British classic, part psychological-thriller, part Machiavellian tale. Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter weave a marvelously decadent web of corruption and intrigue, as the affluent fly gradually becomes trapped into the working-class spider’s web, it’s only a matter of time before he’s devoured entirely. Sometimes, playing with your food can be more pleasing than the act of eating itself.
STUDIOCANAL’S 4k Re-Release of The Servant will be available in cinemas on 10th September, with the 4K UHD Collector’s edition Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital available to own from 20th September.