Forty years after it was shot, this adaptation of a sci-fi novel by Doris Lessing finally feels like it’s bang up to date. Originally written in 1974, Lessing’s book is a familiar brand of dystopian future; most machines have stopped functioning, society has broken down, feral children and gangs roam the streets, the few who remain in the cities are left to sit terrified in their tower-blocks, waiting for the barbarians to come and eat their pets. So far, so 2020, but Lessing is not a writer concerned with simple take-away meanings, and there’s much more to her vision than just disaffection.
Julie Christie plays D, presumably short for Doris, a woman who lives alone in her flat, but seems to be able to visit the past through a strange membranous wall; Lessing is interested in dreams, and how they relate to reality. We see D travel back to Victorian times, and witness the behaviours of a family; this feels very similar to 1974’s Jacques Rivette film Celine and Julie Go Boating in which a haunted house provides similar insights for the protagonists. Meanwhile, D invites a surrogate into her house, a girl named Emily (Leonie Mellinger). Emily is initially repulsed, then seduced by Gerald, who organises street-gangs of homeless Norwich children into teams, but D is suspicious of Gerald, and a brooding conflict develops between the women and the potential leader.
The sci-fi trappings of Memoirs of a Survivor are deliberately obscure; an opening caption ‘When Things Stopped’ doesn’t reveal much about what’s gone wrong with the world, but it’s clear that Lessing blames things on the patriarchy; newspaper hoardings offer bland statements like ‘Talks Continue’ while the papers themselves offer such generic phrases as “Flashpoint’ interspersed with the topless girl models which were ubiquitous in UK culture at the time. But there is no relief in the past; the Victorian father that D imagines, played by Nigel Hawthorne, seems dissatisfied with his wife and drawn towards abusing his own daughter; such motives are implied rather than seen, but it’s clear that Lessing sees a firm connection between the sins of the fathers and the current decay.
Memoirs of a Survivor brings back a number of members of the team who made classic State-of-the-nation address O Lucky Man, editor David Gladwell directs and Michael Medwin produces, while veteran Kerry Lee Crabbe co-wrote the script. Walter Lassally (Before Midnight) handles the lensing in a memorably spare way. Audiences and critics were utterly nonplussed by this film in 1981, but viewed from 2020, it’s a route-one attack on the patriarchy, and demonstrates an identifiable political and feminist slant that’s highly persuasive. Hard to see for 40 years, it’s a humble £2.50 to stream from the BFI right now, and worth a look for those seems to swap our current lockdown dystopia for a more literary, but no less chilling state of urban decay.