Sunday 6 January 2008

Look Back in Anger (1958) Tony Richardson

I'm not sure I ever expected to see Richard Burton as a blistering jazz trumpeter but that's where he is at the beginning of this film, in a smoky jazz club. This is one of those kitchen sink dramas that my mother used to hate so much and I heard about but never read or saw, a film adaptation of the play by John Osborne. In fact this was the very play, first staged two years earlier in 1956, that gave rise to the term 'angry young men' that came to define a generation of English writers.

It could easily have defined the characters too, though that was never the intent. Burton's character, Jimmy Porter, certainly seems to be raging from moment one, angry as soon as he leaves the stage. He's mad at his wife for vague and undefined reasons (she's pusillanimous), he's mad at the council official (played by a very young Donald Pleasence) who monitors the market where he runs a sweet stall, hes even mad at the church bells ringing outside. He seems to be devoted to his mother though, which could explain plenty from a psychological standpoint. It certainly explains the real issue at hand: class.

Jimmy's mother is a decent sort but she's decidedly lower class, as much as she pronounces her T's. His wife, Alison, as played by Mary Ure who reprises her role from the original play, is upper middle class, a notable difference in the England of the fifties. He loves her very much, or at least desires her completely even after a couple of years of marriage, but he seems to hate everything she stands for. This naturally extends to despising himself for loving her, and of course self-loathing was something that Richard Burton seemed to do better than anyone else. He seethes awesomely here, but my mother's point, and mine too to a degree, is why anyone would want to watch it.

There are three other main players in the thing. Claire Bloom is a actress friend of Alison's, who inevitably looks far more like Elizabeth Taylor than she should, given that Taylor didn't come into the picture for quite a few years yet. She comes to stay for a couple of weeks, as she's acting nearby and Alison needs a female friend to talk to, given that she's become pregnant but can't find a suitable opportunity to tell her husband (or he won't provide her with one). The character keeping the peace between them all is Cliff Lewis, a young Welshman (the irony!) who both lodges with them and co-runs the sweet stall. He's played by Gary Raymond, who I've never heard of but does very well indeed in such exalted company.

The film is depressing and very dark, not just in theme but in colour, some scenes in the dim and dingy lodging house being almost impenetrable. Tony Richardson directs with style, and justifies his inclusion in the list of notable English directors of the era though I'm not sure why the writers got to be 'angry young men' but the directors just got to be 'new wave'. He's the husband of Vanessa Redgrave and father of Natasha and Joely Richardson. Interestingly, while three Tony Richardson movies made the BFI's list of the top 100 British films, this wasn't one of them. What the combination of Richardson, Osborne and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) do here reminds much more of A Streetcar Named Desire than This Sporting Life. Like the latter it's very English but more in theme than setting. Like the former it's stagy, literate and detached.

It would be easy to see this film as nothing but a bunch of shouting. I never did understand all the shouting in these stories, given that people can be thoroughly unpleasant without it, especially when they're as intelligent as the characters that Burton tended to play. Maybe it's just an excuse for people to come back to later and pretend they didn't mean it. Under it though is a real story about class, and other social issues that were only starting to see mention in film: racism, abortion, divorce, extra-marital affairs. They're kept down at the subplot level, but are handled very well. What we're really watching is powerful stage acting, from all three of the lead actors, in a groundbreaking and influential play from John Osborne. The fact that it's on film really doesn't matter that much.

1 comment:

Lainie said...

I found this post because I am watching this movie on streaming Netflix and am struck by how much Clare Bloom looks like Elizabeth Taylor in this film, and wondering whether others had seen this also.