A Day At The Beach is a 1970 British-Danish co-production based on a 1962 novel by Heere Heeresma about a deeply unlikeable, pretentious alcoholic's access day with his young disabled niece who it is inferred is actually his daughter. It's worth noting that this novel was adapted once again in 1984 as Een Dagje Naar Het Strand by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, but I've not seen that or indeed heard of it until today. This original adaptation I have been aware of for many years because of two of its contributors; Peter Sellers (who, alongside his friend Graham Stark, has a cameo as one half of a gay seaside shopkeeper duo, credited - without subtlety - as A. Queen) and Roman Polanski who wrote the screenplay for the film and co-produced it with his partner Gene Gutowski. Polanski had originally intended to direct himself but retreated from the project, presumably in the wake of Sharon Tate's murder, and it subsequently became young Moroccan filmmaker Simon Hesera's sole dramatic credit . The film, shot in Denmark but seemingly set in the UK (despite the camera taking in signs, posters and train timetables in the Danish language) was released in Europe between 1970 (UK) and 1972 (Denmark) but was never released in America and was subsequently 'lost' by Paramount, only resurfacing with a DVD release in 2007 via Odeon's Best of British collection in the UK and Code Red in the US.
Mark Burns stars as Bernie, a pathetic alcoholic prone to deeply self-destructive behaviour. What makes this side of his nature even more inappropriate and thoroughly reprehensible is the fact that he does so whilst being responsible for his caliper-wearing niece/daughter Winnie (Beatie Edney - Sylvia Syms daughter, now a star of TV's Poldark - in her film debut) who he has decided to take out for a deeply ill-advised, off-season and eponymous 'day at the beach' in the middle of a terrible downpour. What follows is a bleak and despairing narrative made up of a series of dysfunctional encounters with other people as Bernie spirals headlong into a selfish and devastating binge with little regard for poor Winnie, who loves her 'Uncle Bernie' unconditionally despite being aware of his flaws with a wisdom beyond her years.
A Day At The Beach is a really uncomfortable viewing experience. Unlike other films about alcoholism, there is no sympathy - or crucially, no misplaced romanticism - to be found in the character of Bernie whose cries of despair and pontificating, self pitying Shakespeare-esque monologues borne from his distaste for authority (as represented by Jack MacGowran's deckchair attendant, any number of barmen or cafe owners, or the loan shark he owes money too and whom he uses Winnie's polio-stricken disability as an excuse to shake him off) leave you under no allusion that this man is a complete and utter dick, and Burns' performance is certainly one of bleary-eyed alienation. No, what makes A Day At The Beach so unsettling is the danger the poor and trusting infant Winnie is consistently in whilst in this drunk's 'care'. I defy anyone not to watch this film and feel utterly depressed at the scenes featuring her sat outside pubs in the cold, wet evening or stranded in the dodgems because her selfish father didn't consider that she'd be unable to reach the pedals for herself. Unfortunately however, either Polanski in his script or Hesera in the direction, seem to forget where our sympathies should lie by depicting Bernie at one stage as a misunderstood, isolated and tormented figure seeking solace in drink because the society around him is so intellectually dead, humdrum and ugly. It doesn't work - his selfish pursuit to sate his addiction, ruthlessly ignoring Winnie's needs, has already repulsed us too much. There's no going back by this stage, and Bernie's tearful, hysterical desire to gain Winnie's forgiveness refuses to move us and only further serves to highlight his self-pitying nature.
Despite not actually being a Polanski film, the director imbues his screenplay with the touches that have become synonymous with his oeuvre. Disturbing paranoia stealthily creeps in, whilst our own anxieties for Winnie increases. There's also his unmistakeable perverse macabre humour, specifically aimed at the innocent Winnie; a polio victim whose calipers squeak with her every movement. It's notably telling that Bernie's so much of a heel that what are virtually his first words to his secret daughter are to do with the distaste he personally feels at seeing her leg brace, yet Polanski finds something to amuse himself with regarding it. But Polanski admits that something got lost from script to screen with him taking a backseat; "It’s not good. The problem is, I’m afraid, the director, and also insufficient funds. But the main problem is the actor. You can’t watch a man playing a drunk for one and a half hours unless he’s a really great actor and has some charisma. That guy had none. Other than that, I mean, the film, if there had been a great performance, the film is done well enough to work. What didn’t work was the casting. Simon was not a director, and, let’s face it, we were a little bit cavalier" With these words in mind, was Polanski hoping for a more redemptive approach to the character of Bernie? Whilst it would have made the film a touch more palatable, I still think that trying to gain our sympathy would have sent out the wrong signals. A Day At The Beach is a depressing watch, but its subject requires it to be, and - in the main - Hesera keeps it as a distinctly unromantic look at addiction.