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The Servant review – a potent classic of British class warfare

A shady manservant plans to usurp his employer in Joseph Losey's fascinating and still timely tale of rich vs. poor, now restored in 4K

There’s something about Barrett. Perhaps it’s the way his mouth twitches slightly with stifled disdain when you ask him to fetch your supper. The sense of slight insubordination. Maybe it’s his boyish good looks, or that utterly disarming raise of the eyebrow. There's reason to be concerned. As the manservant with a hidden agenda, he squirrels his way into his master’s psyche in what is possibly the most seamless home invasion ever put to the screen.

This 4K restoration of The Servant gives new audiences the opportunity to see Joseph Losey’s glacial masterpiece. Starring Dirk Bogarde as a working class manservant with shady motives and James Fox as his babied and feeble employer, the film remains a rarified experience in masterful manipulation and thrilling commentary on the waning power of the social elite in the Swinging Sixties.

Adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter, the script offers up darkly comic wit and perverse sexuality in a way that feels utterly Ortonesque. Playing against his matinée idol good looks, Bogarde channels his charming grin into a villainous smirk. Knowing what we know now about the actor’s lifelong concealed sexuality, the film’s unmistakable homoeroticism – and the frisson of energy between the leads – is all the more fascinating. When Fox’s Tony sobs into his pillow after succumbing to Barrett’s psychosexual manipulation, the camera pans up to reveal numerous photos of hunky, semi-naked men, contorted into positions that emphasise their rippling muscles.

Revisiting the film 58 years later is also interesting in regards to James Fox. With a career built on weedy, rich, unlikeable roles, from his Nazi sympathiser in The Remains of the Day to his brat sympathiser in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, audiences are more attuned to his unsavouriness. As Tony, Fox is an insouciant bachelor: odious, uninteresting, and wandering through life in a state of self-importance. As such, when the tables are turned and he grows weak-willed and increasingly soused, we can’t help but feel thrilled by the way he's been steamrolled by Barrett’s menacing magnetism.

As twisted cohabiters, the film’s decline into woozy decadence is gripping to witness and symbolic of Britain’s disintegrating upper classes. As the priggish Susan, Wendy Craig is no match for Sarah Miles’ Vera, with her short skirts and thick eyeliner: a freewheeling sexuality has arrived, guns akimbo, to take down moralistic social codes.This is something Losey explores in a number of his films; in his 1964 film noir The Sleeping Tiger, a young Bogarde seduces his way out of a robbery charge and insinuates himself within a well-to-do couple’s marital affairs.

Contemporaneously, many have compared The Servant to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite – for both its slipperiness of social ascent as well as the home invasion plot. When Susan asks Barrett, “Do you use a deodorant?” with a callous smirk, it’s beat-for-beat with the Park family’s quip that Kim Ki-taek’s smell “crosses a line.”

The us-vs-them feel is everywhere, including Losey’s direction. Characters are frequently framed at right angles to one another in constant face-off, adding an extra layer of tension to scenes. Warping glass globes and numerous spherical mirrors curve characters in and out of view – someone is always hiding in plain sight, ready to pounce. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is piercing, with high contrast monochrome and deep focus crisply outlining the surroundings of this mansion-cum-battlefield. A fired gun becomes a menacing dripping kitchen tap; a winding staircase becomes the location of trench warfare.

Despite the passing of decades, The Servant remains potent and fascinating. Though it analyses a long-faded period of time, its subtle script – littered with sinister gaslighting – remains slickly relevant. Whether it’s Parasite or Claude Chabrol’s similar and brilliant 1995 film La Cérémonie, The Servant’s eat-the-rich influence continues to inspire.

The new restoration of The Servant arrives in cinemas from 10 September. A 4K UHD Collector’s edition Blu-Ray, featuring new essays, interviews and featurettes, is available from 20 September and can now be pre-ordered.

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