This reaches a level of realism rarely seen. The story revolves around Jo, a lower class young girl in Manchester, England in the early 1960s. In the beginning Jo lives with her alcoholic mother Helen in a run-down flat and, when her mother takes up with a loser, Jo gets a gut load and moves out on her own and finds a job in a shoe store. She becomes romantically involved with Jimmy, a black ship's cook. She gets pregnant, only to have Jimmy ship out and leave her to deal with the situation alone. Along the way Jo meets Geoffrey, a young man who moves in with her. If this all sounds a bit too downbeat for you, be aware that this film has a lot of qualities that make it worth seeing.
Both Rita Tushingham, as Jo, and Murray Melvin, as Geoffrey, won best actor awards at Cannes in 1962. These were well deserved in my opinion. I was taken with Tushingham. She has an interesting face and, in her first film roll here, she is able to express a lot with facial expressions. Frequently filming her in close up is effective. The relationship between Jo and Geoffrey is played with some tenderness. I found Geoffrey's sexuality to be ambiguous. In one scene he tries to kiss Jo and offers to marry her. This she rejects. While Geoffrey does have some stereotypical behavior patterns associated with gays, I found that there was only one scene that more than hints at Geoffrey's homosexuality, and that is when Jo's mother's mate comes into Jo's flat, sees that Jo is pregnant, looks at Geoffrey and says, "Whose this, the father?" and, after looking at Geoffrey says, "Oh, dear, no." Since homosexual acts were illegal in England until 1967, portraying overt homosexuality on screen in this movie would have been controversial.
There is some sharp dialog, especially between Jo and her mother. When Helen announces the she is going to get married, Jo asks, "You're not getting married in a church are you?" to which Helen answers, "Why? You coming to throw bricks at us?" When Helen puts on a fur and asks, "Jo, how do you like this?" Jo responds, "Bet somebody's missing their cat."
Walter Lassally's black-and-white cinematography is to be savored-- he understands that art form. There are some scenes that are powerful in black and white that would be unremarkable in color. I am thinking in particular of one scene that has Jimmy walking across a bridge that has him in black against a bright background. This scene emphasizes the sadness of his leaving. Many scenes, like the last scene with the sparklers, are so well lighted that they last in memory. Lassally also knows how to get the most out of Tushingham's close ups.
Director Richardson, who was nominated for best director at Cannes for this movie, was on a real roll at this time in his career. Consider: Tom Jones (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), A Taste of Honey (1961), Sanctuary (1961), The Entertainer (1960), Look Back in Anger (1959). He also worked with some of the best actors of his generation, like Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Albert Finney.
Some of the themes treated, like interracial relationships and hints at homosexuality were daring at the time. You would think that this would make the movie dated, but it is not like those issues have been totally resolved some sixty years later.
The one negative for me was the score--it would be more appropriate for a lighthearted Cary Grant, Kathryn Hepburn comedy. "A Taste of Honey" is a serious look at a time and place. It does have some humor, but much of that comes from sarcastic dialog. There are vestiges of this having been a stage play, particularly in the final scenes, but the filming makes this a work of cinema, especially by filming using outdoor locations.
The Criterion Collection DVD contains interviews with Tushingham and Melvin (filmed in 2016), and Lassally (filmed in 1998). I usually find such interviews a bit of a bore where the actors praise everyone, but these interviews I thought were interesting. Tushingham had things to say about working with Richardson. The interview with Melvin is fantastic--he in one interesting dude. I liked his comments, "I was the start of gay pride of 1958. It's all down to me, honey. It's on my shoulders, and I'm very proud of it." The interview with Lassally shows that he was very concerned with film quality and how much he thought about the filming. Some of his work here was pioneering in the use of low light photography, hand held cameras, and different film stocks. He was so interested in getting contrasts right that in the scene with Jo and Geoffrey under the arch he actually put some sand in a field in the background so that he could get Jo in well-defined silhouette.