As our Hayley Mills tribute month comes to an end, I’m bringing things to a close with a bit of a creator’s preference. This week, we find ourselves in the late 1960s for an examination of A Matter of Innocence. The coming-of-age drama partners Mills opposite yet another perennial Kim favorite, Trevor Howard… who just so happens would have been celebrating a birthday this week. Consider this a two for one tribute, kids.
A Matter of Innocence follows Polly (Hayley Mills) who travels to Singapore while working as a companion to her wealthy aunt (Brenda de Banzie). However, when her aunt passes away suddenly, Polly sets about redefining herself thanks to her newfound freedom. This comes in the shape of an American millionaire (Dick Patterson) and a dashing Indian concierge (Shashi Kapoor)… much to the chagrin of her frustrated uncle (Trevor Howard). Guy Green directs the film from a script by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.
A Matter of Innocence (I’ve also heard the film referenced under the title Pretty Polly) comes at a very interesting and transitional period, particularly in European history. This is very visible within the narrative, especially when examining the narrative handling of Singapore as a location.
Anyone who has taken a secondary school history course has a passing knowledge to the British Empire in the historical sense. By the 1960s, Great Britain was passing into a state of transition. The ‘Empire’ as it had been seen in previous decades was growing ever smaller. In constructing its narrative through Polly’s perspective, A Matter of Innocence places the ‘old ways’ and the dated views of the era very much under a microscope. These are primarily seen through the perspective of the older characters. It is very, ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’. This begins at the most superficial level with a number of references to the ‘Mystic East’ as well as a very distinct sense that the British tourists see the Singapore locals as the ‘other’. This is of course most clearly demonstrated in Aunt Eva (de Banzie) and Uncle Robert (Howard).
However, in using Polly as the primary source of identification, the film demonstrates that the world is changing. It’s very clear these older people represent the past. This is how the world used to be. Meanwhile, Polly likes to see local hotspots, she treats Amaz (Kapoor) like he’s a human being and in all honesty, thanks to the benefit of her perspective, we see just how foolish the people around her sound. In every generation it remains true, the sins of the parents are remedied in the children.
At the same time, A Matter of Innocence isn’t simply documenting a historical transition. This is very much a new kind of role for Hayley Mills. Mills, like many young women who grew up in the spotlight, struggled to be seen as an adult. And sometimes (like last week’s offering Twisted Nerve) her association with childhood and innocence was definitely used to further the story. As such, she was often pigeonholed in almost childlike roles even as she passed into adulthood. A Matter of Innocence on the other hand, stands apart from these, in that it gives Mills one of her earliest opportunities to take on a grown-up part.
Mills’ previous role in 1966s The Family Way saw the young actress playing a recently married woman. While she’s not truly juvenile in the film, as in her previous roles in The Trouble with Angels and Gypsy Girl, she’s still very much tied to her mother and the wide-eyed innocence of the character emphasizes her girlhood. However, A Matter of Innocence pulls her out of this subservient and dependent role. All the characters read Polly as a young, innocent girl. In fact, according to her Uncle, she’s “all teeth and glasses”. However, the moral of the story reminds us though that Polly is more than the child people see.
Actor Shashi Kapoor steps into the role of Amaz. The actor and producer was a mainstay in the Indian film industry racking up more than 170 credits during a career lasting more than 55 years. By the time he starred in A Matter of Innocence, he’d been landing staring roles for more than five years, including The Householder which is recognized as one of the earliest Merchant Ivory films.
The romantic pairing between Polly and Amaz is an interesting one which grounds the film squarely in this historically transitional period. The fact that they are even allowed to be seen as a couple is certainly notable. Hollywood cinema (specifically) banned interracial couplings throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Films had only started pushing against these rules into the 1950s and 1960s. Though, it must be added that (as mentioned) this film is British and handlings of race relations are going to be different the world over. This can’t be examined through a specifically Hollywood lens.
Though, the romantic in me did struggle a bit with eventual course of the ending. It’s easy to see Mills and Kapoor had chemistry, so the fact that as the story comes to an end, she leaves Singapore for Hong Kong on her own didn’t quite gel for me. I will admit to being a shameless romantic.
Ultimately, it does make sense from a feminist perspective. In an early third act conversation with her Uncle, he emphasizes that Polly is not meant to settle. Settling would be the equivalent of returning home to work at her mother’s bakery and marrying the boy down the block. She’s meant for bigger and better things. As the final credits roll, she’s happy, content and has a delightful parrot to keep her company. Sometimes that’s all a girl needs. (Despite how nice it is to see Polly absolutely worshiped by the wide-eyed Amaz).
Granted, it’s difficult to completely ignore the interracial element of the narrative. Could the coupling have happened? It is difficult to say. Ultimately, A Matter of Innocence is one of the stories where it’s necessary to celebrate the small wins. Culture is slow to change, but evolution is always happening.
A Matter of Innocence is a surprisingly sweet, under-the-radar watch. The movie came out of nowhere to be one of my favorite of my ‘Hayley Mills’ watches over the month of September. It is certainly a transitional movie for the growing actress. Not only was history slowly moving passed the restraint and chastity of the early 1960s, but Mills was changing too. In this film, she gets a well-deserved opportunity to step out from behind the child roles she’d been playing for much of the 1960s and demonstrate that she could spread her wings. She was more than just ‘Pollyanna’.
This brings our September celebration of Hayley Mills’ work to a close. Even a quick look over Mills’ filmography shows that she was so much more than the Disney darling popular culture made her out to be. There’s some fascinating and interesting films to dive into over the course of her more than fifty years on-screen. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
A Matter of Innocence is available to watch on YouTube.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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