An ageing writer spends the night in pain, drifting in and out of sleep, dreaming vividly of his family and what parts they would play in his as-yet unwritten new novel. However when his family arrive the next day to celebrate his birthday he realises they are different to what he remembered.
In a rambling old dark house (the Providence of the title), novelist Clive Langham (Gielgud) passes the night before his 78th birthday in severe physical and emotional pain, wrestling with fragments of a possible novel in which he subtly exacts revenge on members of his own family by casting them in roles reflecting his harsh judgements.
The plot of the book straggles as Langham changes his mind: mainly, Langham's lawyer son Claude (Bogarde) dallies with a mistress (Elaine Stritch) who is the image of his dead mother, while Claude's wife (Burstyn) is drawn to a shambling young man (Warner) whom Claude has prosecuted for the mercy-killing of an alleged werewolf.
In his 1977 English-language debut, director Resnais, best known for the time distortions of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year In Marienbad, combines his usual flair for complex reality-fantasy, memory-fiction cocktails with writer David Mercer's almost Providence: "An underrated masterpiece, well worth rediscovering." Theatrical psychodrama, drawing a performance of startling bravery and surprising dignity from Gielgud.
It's a marvellously contrived conceit, with Gielgud's wonderfully bitter commentary interrupting and distorting Langham's half-baked novel, and undercutting the British fascist police state background by lamenting that his concentration camp nightmares should be so banal. The supporting cast play complex characters in a deliberately flat manner and Bogarde, in particular, pulls off something technically extraordinary. An underrated masterpiece well worth rediscovering.
With the ageing Gielgud giving a great performance as a dying writer, aided superbly by a talented supporting cast, and the suitably gothic setting, Providence amuses, entertains and thrills. After several success' in his native French, his first English film was a considerable achievement.