Irvin Kershner is not a famous director, but you probably know at least a few of his films. He directed George C. Scott in the minor 1967 hit, The Flim-Flam Man, Richard Harris in The Return of a Man called Horse (1976), Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Sean Connery in his return to the role of James Bond in Never Say Never Again (1983) and most famously, the cast of Star Wars in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). But most people have never heard of his best film, made on a limited budget with a relatively unknown cast in 1964. The film is The Luck of Ginger Coffey. It starred Robert Shaw who had just recently gone from anonymity to blockbuster recognition with his appearance in From Russia with Love but his skills as an actor were still untested, still an unknown quantity. After this film the matter would be settled. His performance as Ginger Coffey is one of the best performances of the sixties, bar none. Along with Shaw was Mary Ure, Shaw's real life wife, playing Ginger's wife in the film.
By the late fifties, Britain had started to produce what would come to be known as "kitchen-sink dramas." Some notable ones include Look Back in Anger and This Sporting Life. The term came from an expressionist painting by John Bratby featuring a kitchen sink. The critic David Sylvester wrote an article referring to trends in art going more towards featuring the banality of everyday life and referred to the Bratby painting in the article. The term caught on and soon an entire genre was created. Although many films could fit into the "kitchen-sink" genre, generally speaking the characters should be from the U.K., the film should be in black and white, possess no cinematic pretensions and involve ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems. The Luck of Ginger Coffey fits that formulation to a tee and although it is rarely mentioned among "kitchen-sink" dramas it is easily among the best.
It is clear from the beginning that James Francis Coffey, nicknamed "Ginger", is a dreamer. He has moved his wife Vera and his daughter Paulie to Canada in search of a better life. Ginger has so far failed at every job he's taken but he's sure that here he will succeed. "Those jobs weren't for me," he tells his wife. "They couldn't see my true talents." Ginger always has a reason why those other jobs failed and it never seems to be him.
It doesn't take long for Vera and Paulie to lose faith in Ginger and long to return to Ireland. Vera starts saving money for tickets back home but Ginger takes the money and blows it. When confronted with Vera's fury over this Ginger assures her they don't need to save because any minute now his ship will roll in. But the Coffey's do have one thing in their favor, a rich friend who can get Ginger the job he wants at a local paper.
It seems Ginger has always fancied himself a journalist and believes that's what he should be doing. When he's given a job as a low level copy-editor at a local newspaper he accepts it begrudgingly. He doesn't feel a man of his age and wisdom should be starting at the bottom but should be given a byline his first day on the job. At this point, one begins to feel the same frustration with Ginger that his wife and daughter feel and it comes as no surprise to anyone but Ginger when Vera and Paulie leave him, taking up residence with that rich friend. After taking everything with them Ginger has no choice but to move in to the local Y.M.C.A.
Here he meets a man who works for a local diaper service and Ginger is offered a delivery job. He takes it as an effort to show Vera and Paulie that he is willing to do hard work to win them back. Paulie is convinced and with his duel income he is able to afford a small flat for himself and Paulie, all the while assuring Vera that his promotion at the paper to a reporter is just around the corner.
At the diaper delivery job Ginger excels. He comes up with new ideas to make the service more efficient and even re-designs their logo to draw in more business. And that's when it happens. That's when the viewer looks into the eyes of a man destined for failure and knows there is nothing they can do about it. It is all the more frustrating and heartbreaking because while everyone around him can see it, Ginger cannot. The diaper service offers him a promotion, a big one, where he can be in charge of taking the service in new directions.
Ginger turns it down.
Accepting the promotion would mean devoting all of his time to the job meaning he would have to leave his low-level newspaper job. And that's the job that Ginger is convinced is his future. By this point, perhaps feeling sorry for him, Vera has come back. The struggles continue as Ginger has left the diaper service to focus on the paper job only to be laid-off. No promotion. No reporter's byline. And now, no job at all.
Ginger, drunk and depressed, relieves himself on a tree in a public park and is arrested for indecent exposure. In the courtroom, jokes are made about drinking and the Irish and Ginger is humiliated. Ginger tells his story to the judge, who takes pity on him and dismisses the charges. In the final scene, Vera waits for Ginger outside the courthouse. As she tells him it will get better, they walk off across the courthouse lawn together, unsure of themselves and with an uncertain future ahead.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey is not a "happy" film by any stretch of the imagination. But it's not as depressing as the synopsis makes it sound either. There is hope for Ginger. One could reasonably assume he could go back to the diaper company with his tail between his legs and get his old job back. But that's not really the point. Like them or hate them, the point of the "kitchen-sink" dramas was to get inside the lives of everyday people and that didn't always mean a rosy ending for the title character, ala Georgy Girl. Sometimes, it didn't always mean an ending at all, at least not in the traditional sense.
As the film ends the story line is depressing but the characters are not. Vera has returned to Ginger and is encouraging him. People cannot change who they are overnight or perhaps ever but they can take steps in the right direction. Ginger worked two jobs to prove to himself and his wife and daughter that he could do it. Sad as the ending may seem there is hope, hope for both of them.
Orson Welles famously said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." The point being that we all have multiple happy endings and multiple sad endings but they're not really endings at all, just starting points for the next step. The Luck of Ginger Coffey shows us a man with many happy and sad endings weaving in and out of his life. Picking one to start or end his story would not help the viewer to understand him. We understand Ginger only through watching his decisions produce consequences after an "ending" or "beginning" has occurred. We, the viewers, can see where those starting and stopping points are. The tragedy of Ginger Coffey is that, try as he may, he simply cannot. As he walks from the courthouse we have hope for him and his wife, hope that he will see those "beginnings" when they arrive, but ultimately fear that he will not. It's not a happy ending but it's the only ending the movie can give us. We may not have a cut and dry conclusion, but we know Ginger Coffey well, and we understand him. Hopefully one day, he will too.