Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron) is a French girl in London, looking for a place to stay after leaving the parental home. She ends up in Notting Hill and a seedy boarding house, but she has little choice because it's cheap and better than the streets, although the landlady, Doris (Avis Bunnage) tries to trick her out of more money than she can afford. Jane settles at a less expensive rate and tries to make herself comfortable, although she refuses to sleep in the bed when she sees the mattress is infested with bedbugs. Yet she has a more important problem than that to deal with: the single Jane is pregnant...
The L-Shaped Room was adapted from the novel by Lynne Reid Banks (also author of children's favourite The Indian in the Cupboard) by director Bryan Forbes, and was part of the kitchen sink drama movement aiming for further realism in British film of the late fifties and early sixties. Of course, as a newspaper poster declares this means all of human life is there, all human life fitting for melodrama that is, and there is a quite remarkable selection of unsatisfied social types inhabiting Doris's house, all to add as much colour to a drab world as possible.
Caron was rightly praised for her heartfelt performance, a brave one for an actress best known up till then for wholesome musicals, but the whole cast grab every opportunity they can, from Tom Bell's Toby (a writer who just happens to make his career by penning a story based on his experiences there) to Brock Peters' Johnny (a West Indian who plays trumpet with a jazz band). Also filling up the rooms are elderly lesbian Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) and a couple of prostitutes in the basement, making this somewhat contrived in the way Forbes has their lives collide along the way.
Jane keeps her condition a secret from everyone, as in 1962 a unwed mother was the subject of scandal, although as she's French perhaps the film wants us to excuse her for her Continental life choices? Fortunately Caron rises above such conventions with great subtlety and poise, and her character becomes something of a reluctant rebel, her decision to have the baby an act of defiance in a conservative society - these days it would be more rebellious to go ahead with the abortion as the unsympathetic private doctor she visits thinks she should.
Not that it's all plain sailing, as she almost has an illegal termination halfway through the film, and life is complicated by the feelings she has for Toby who has fallen for her without knowing she's pregnant. The film is careful to make clear that Jane was a virgin before her encounter with her previous boyfriend (who she doesn't want to see anymore) and Toby is only her second lover, lest we be of the opinion that she was the kind of girl who slept around, or a "whore!" as a disappointed Johnny calls her. When Toby does discover Jane's secret, it effectively ends their relationship, so Forbes illustrates how her motherhood will not be without the burdens of responsibility and prejudice. Although it goes on for far too long, The L-Shaped Room is interesting in its influence on British television soap operas, because that's where you saw stories like this for decades to come. It might look lost on the big screen now.
[The L-Shaped Room has been fully restored for a Studio Canal DVD/Blu-Ray release. Those extras - New interview with Leslie Caron - New interview with Lynne Reid Banks - New featurette: The L-Shaped Room & The British New Wave - Stills gallery.]