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Saturday, 9 June 2007

This Sporting Life (1963) Lindsay Anderson

My mother used to loathe the kitchen sink dramas of the fifties and sities and this is a great example. Far from the traditional manor houses and landed gentry, it's a tale of miners and rugby league players, and it's set up north in Yorkshire rather than the south east of England. It seems strange that a film so rooted in the lower classes and the grim realities of life should start out with a mildly avant garde Roberto Gerhard soundtrack, but everything else is as down and dirty as it can be.

The key player is Frank Machin, a temperamental young miner who plays rugby league well enough to try out for the City team. He's also a tough guy who doesn't hold back for anyone or anything, taking his revenge on an opposing player who tries it on in a headstrong but calculating manner. He's tough on the field but he's tough off it too, following the paths that need to be followed, regardless of what hardships may be found on the way. One of those paths is getting closer to his landlady, Mrs Hammond, who was widowed a year earlier and refuses to have any fun at all. As Machin says, 'she put up the shutters and stopped living'.

Machin is played powerfully by Richard Harris, a notorious hell raiser in real life so a natural for the half suppressed rage that Machin seems to thrive on. I know Harris, but apparently mostly from later years and I didn't even recognise him here. He looks far more like Marlon Brando than Richard Harris and his performance reminds far more of Brando's early roles than anything else I've seen. Given that warmed up to this one by playing third fiddle to Brando and Trevor Howard in Mutiny on the Bounty, maybe that shouldn't be too surprising. Brando seemed to have a knack for changing the perspectives of others.

Backing him up in This Sporting Life are a whole slew of people I know from British TV, most notably William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who, but also Colin Blakely, Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter. I didn't even recognise Frank Windsor, but then I know him from shows far later in life than the ones he was famous for in 1967. Mrs Hammond is Rachel Roberts, who I don't know at all. I have seen her before, but given that the only time may well have been in Murder on the Orient Express, in which she was the least famous of a huge cast of stars, it probably isn't that surprising that I don't remember her. She has some great presence here though and there's some magic in the odd moments that she allows life to creep into her features.

She's obviously Welsh though, and given that Harris is Irish and his accent slips out occasionally, they make a strange pair to be playing in a thoroughly Yorkshire story. The other problems are also with the approach: the soundtrack doesn't always seem to fit and the non linear way we're given the story jars a little with the blatant 'go out and get it' honesty of the characters and the situations. The acting is flawless though and the film has a serious power to it that is undeniable.

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