It’s not very often that a story about social change becomes dated. In most cases, any viewer can relate in some way to the struggles of people who lived decades before them. I’m sure many would be able to see themselves in at least one of the characters in Roy Boulting’s The Guinea Pig, but unfortunately, the film misses the mark on social commentary.
Jack Read (Richard Attenborough) wins a scholarship to a public school as part of an experiment that asks whether the new post-war societal structure can fathom boys from different classes mixing and succeeding together.
Instead of a predictable story about a boy bringing together his two worlds and making them see eye-to-eye, Read is forced to choose between his roots and the establishment. He does eventually settle at the school but only after he changes to fit in.
The classist bullying that Read faces from the moment he arrives would astonish a modern audience. Even the teachers ridicule him. One French teacher remarks ‘that accent is deplorable’ after Read is asked to read aloud, and there is some ambiguity as to which accent he means.
The ‘noble peasant’ cliché is safely sidestepped however when we are introduced to more of the people in Read’s old life. His working-class friends and family goad him just as much as his schoolmates, and now see him as other. Ultimately, Read decides to keep his head down and become like the people he despised at the beginning of the film.
The teasing and the bullying stops, and even the Housemaster, Mr. Hartley, (Cecil Trouncer) who initially abhorred the idea of a working-class boy attending the school, seems to take a shine to Read, but this is only after he works hard to become the student they bullied him into being.
Nigel Lorraine (Robert Flemyng) seems to be the bridge between these two worlds. He’s younger and more empathetic than his dusty, old colleagues, however, he’s more of a fairy godmother than the stick-it-to-the-man revolutionary one might have hoped him to be when he is first introduced.
There seems to be no moral learned, no change instigated. Instead of questioning and critiquing the institution that chews Read up and spits him out, the film makes the people who picked on him sympathetic characters. In fact, by the end of the film, we don’t see much of Read at all, the focus shifts to Hartley retiring and Lorraine taking his place. So not only does the film suggest that the only way for a working-class boy like Read to do well is to change himself, but it also enforces the endless cycle of the establishment.
Overall, the film drags its feet. It does hold the audience’s attention but the characters are tired, and the story rather deflating. The actors do well with a surprisingly good script, but we are left wondering what the point of it all was if Read’s induction didn’t incur very much change at all.
Dir: Roy Boulting
Scr: Roy Boulting, Warren Chetham-Strode (play), Bernard Miles
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, Bernard Miles, Cecil Trouncer, Robert Flemyng, Edith Sharpe, Joan Hickson, Timothy Bateson
Prd: John Boulting
Music: John Wooldridge
Country: United Kingdom
Run time: 97 minutes
The Guinea Pig is available on Blu-ray/DVD on 20 July 2020, and on iTunes and Amazon Prime on 3 August 2020