Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Look Back in Anger (1958)
Whether it was the “Free Cinema”, the “British New Wave”, the “Kitchen Sink Dramas” or the “Angry Young Men Movement” in post-war Great Britain, Tony Richardson was always a big, creative part of it. His first feature film, Look Back in Anger, based on a play by John Osborne which he also directed, is full of the energy that Britain’s creative youth was letting go during a long transitional period in their country’s social history.
Osborne’s story revolves around a young man named Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton), a low-class University graduate who has to push a stall at the open market to make a living for him and his beautiful upper-class wife, Alison (Mary Ure). He’s also a jazz musician, jamming at the local club with his trumpet whenever he feels like blowing some steam. They share an apartment in an attic with their Welsh friend, Cliff Lewis (Gary Raymond), a very common young man with rather common aspirations. Cliff is a happy-go-lucky guy who has no delusions about his limitations in Britain’s seemingly fading, but still quite strong, class system. He loves Jimmy and Alison and seems to be happy just having the privilege of sharing his everyday life with those two. Jimmy on the other hand is a man full of anger and bitterness about the system which he feels won’t ever allow him to reach his full potential – so why even try. This bitterness falls with all its weight on Alison, a woman guilty of her descent just as much as Jimmy is of his own. Alison endures his scornful assaults with signs of resignation while looking for the right moment to announce that she carries his baby.
In this extremely charged environment Cliff plays the role of the peacemaker. He provides Jimmy with a chance to detonate his anger through humor – even of the bitter, sarcastic kind — and Alison with someone to lean on when she feels weakened. This delicate balance is jeopardized and finally falls to pieces with the arrival of Helena Charles (Claire Bloom), Alison’s close friend, an actress and an upper-class descendant herself. Jimmy hates her for what she stands for, and shows his feelings from the very start throwing some of his most insulting scorns at her. She stays as calm as possible, helping Alison get through the first difficult days of pregnancy. But things don’t seem to get any better. Jimmy knows nothing, but never lets anyone speak, so a grave decision needs to be made by Alison…
It’s more than obvious throughout the film, that “Angry Young Men” Osborne and Richardson are in love with their central character, Jimmy Porter. He blows his horn as though he will crush any established notions of how music should sound like, and what genre would be more appropriate to express that need than jazz. Jimmy personifies the makers’ own neglect for old institutions and establishments, and serves as their voice against a society that changed coating but kept everything inside intact. “You’re hurt because everything is changed and Jimmy’s hurt because everything is the same,” Alison tells her colonialist father in a rather cynical attempt at understanding the nature of that bridge-less generation gap. These people watch the same process from a totally different point of view in a way that makes their cooperation seem impossible, an impassable dead-end.
How could Jimmy and Alison ever combine to bring another human being in this world? How could they erase so many decades of class war with only a romantic notion of love as their guarantee?
In this context Richard Burton gives a remarkable and totally believable performance – though a bit theatrical. He talks like a well-educated man, but acts with conflicting crudeness, speaking and acting out everything each and everyone of us have probably thought of saying or doing sometime, but in a controversial manner most of us would never have adopted. His mood swings, that lead to brief moments of humanity and tenderness, suggest the battle within, his refusal to become the educated slave to a ruling class and his understanding that he lets himself down by eliminating his own potential. He gets the irony of things but he’s in no position to laugh it off.
Around him and his peers lies a world full of moral hypocrisy, full of promises of change but little action towards it, even less truth and even more ironies. In kind of a simplistic manner, Richardson shows an old lady having some filthy tabloid fun just before going to church and an open market supervising policeman harassing Jimmy and Cliff, and making consequent attempts at throwing the Indian newcomer guy out. He sells cheaper clothes, making business slow for the others, thus, as a foreigner, he becomes the scapegoat, the punching bag for the low-class bullies. “What made you come to this bloody country anyway?” a furious, powerless Jimmy asks him, only to get this devastating answer, “I came because in India I was an outcast, an untouchable.” Class systems can get worse than the one he’s fighting away.
Along with Burton, Gary Raymond, Mary Ure and Claire Bloom all bring their best to their characters creating an emotional and edgy portrait of social relationships in post-war, post-colonial Britain. Tony Richardson paints the whole picture in stark black and white, with a lot of close-ups and camera angles, never letting Jimmy out of his sight. He tells his story in a clear, dramatic way, experienced as he is with it, from directing the original play.
Look Back in Anger is a film about a whole generation, but of timeless value, as intense and uncompromising with the past as its title clearly suggests. As intense and uncompromising with its characters as the past they desperately try to overcome.