As a one-woman play, Shirley Valentine wowed them on both sides of the Atlantic, with star Pauline Collins picking up awards and accolades. The film version strives for the same kind of theater-style intimacy, with Collins breaking the fourth wall to chat with the audience just as she did on stage. It doesn't always work, but few other chick flicks have the ability to make middle-aged women laugh and cry as much as this one does.
Pity poor Shirley Valentine-Bradshaw, a blowsy mid-40ish Liverpudlian housewife whose indifferent husband Joe (Bernard Hill) and sullen daughter treat her like hired help. So lonely is Shirley that she frequently talks to her kitchen walls in order to keep some kind of conversation going.
When her friend Jane (Alison Steadman) wins a trip for two to Greece, Shirley makes what for her is a gigantic decision to tag along despite the complaints of everyone around her. After prepping plenty of food for her shocked husband, she's off to seek out some well-deserved fun in the sun. Upon their arrival in Mykonos, Jane has no trouble embarking on sexy flings, but Shirley feels stifled and embarrassed by all the other ugly British tourists who colonize her hotel and act like imperious boors. She's having trouble relaxing.
The warm sunlight eventually starts to work its magic, and Shirley encounters Costas (Tom Conti), a local restaurant owner with a thick black moustache who offers enough sexual magnetism to get Shirley thinking. She's no dope, as she frequently turns and tells the camera. She's just trying to reconnect with herself, to remember the young woman she used to be (we even get a few glimpses of a wisecracking young Shirley to show us how morose she's become over the years).
Costas and Shirley strike up a casual affair, and even after it falls apart, Shirley is content to work as a waitress in his seaside restaurant and contemplate a future that includes neither Joe nor Liverpool.
Shirley's melancholy is leavened by her biting wit, and she often blurts out barbed analogies that must have gone over big on stage but seem sort of clunky on screen. "I think sex is like supermarkets, you know, overrated," she says. "Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end." Rim shot! "I think that marriage is like the Middle East -- there's no solution." Tell it, sister! Collins is totally winning in the role, but Conti, on the other hand, is a comic cliché, acting out every dumb macho Greek stereotype and coming across as far less authentic than Collins. No matter how desperate and disconnected Shirley feels, it's hard to believe she'd let this Zorba wannabe get inside her head.
So think of Shirley Valentine as "Educating Rita under the Tuscan Sun." Women will enjoy it more than men, and older women will enjoy it more than younger women, but don't worry, Shirley has enough comic singers for everyone.
My parents went to Greece and all I got was this lousy burro.