1982’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a fascinating, if not completely satisfying film. Besides Children of Men, it’s actually the only screen adaptation of a P.D. James novel to date. There have been many TV adaptations, but only two for the big screen—and for a prolific and popular writer, that’s very rare. These two film adaptations took great liberties with the source novels, but James was reportedly happy with both, although there was also a 1997 mini-series adaptation of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.
Chris Petit needed a new project after his vastly over-praised Wim Wenders homage Radio On (which does have a great soundtrack, though), and as he knew an original story probably wouldn’t be financed, he started hunting for a novel to adapt. Petit stumbled upon the P.D. James book, which the film’s producer Don Byrd also knew, and they acquired the rights. Petit is a director who has more art-house sensibilities than are needed for a routine mystery story, but that’s what makes the film interesting, the conflict between the two styles.
Pippa Guard plays James’ detective heroine, Cordelia Gray, who inherits the detective agency “Pryde” after the boss commits suicide. Guard never appeared in another feature film, just TV and stage work, which is a shame, because she has a natural screen presence. Guard is now a lecturer at the University of Greenwich. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Gray is asked to investigate another suicide, this time of Mark, the son of wealthy construction company owner James Calendar (Paul Freeman), but it’s the family’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Leaming (Billie Whitelaw), who approaches her about the investigation. Soon enough Gray has suspicions that Mark may not have committed suicide, and becomes obsessed with him.
It’s a good little mystery, but probably a little too arty for its own good—there is more than a shade of the cryptic mysteries of French auteur Jacques Rivette in the film’s DNA. The film’s most inspired moment is the use of a Dinky car to stage the climatic car crash which Petit admits freely was a homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film Un Flic, which uses a toy train in a similar fashion. It’s the fantastical cinematic touches I love, which filmmakers are petrified to try out of fear that it’s not “realistic.” The mystery itself isn’t that interesting, nor is Petit interested in it, but it’s more of a dreamlike atmosphere than a coherent plot. It’s very telling that he wanted the film to be more like The Night of the Hunter than it ended up being, very much a nightmarish fairy tale, but due to the low-budget and conflicts with the crew, it wasn’t to be. Still, parts of his intent come though, and Petit says he is about 75 percent happy with the film. The resolution of the mystery leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s still a good and engaging film.
Indicator has really rescued the film from obscurity. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman never had a DVD release, and as far as I can tell the last release was on Palace Video! Petit and Byrd provide new interviews, along with actor Dominic Guard. The theatrical and VHS trailers, along with an image gallery, round off the extras on the disc. The booklet includes a new essay by Claire Monk, an archival essay by Christopher Petit, production reports on the making of the film and an overview of contemporary critical responses.