Friday, February 19, 2010

HELLRAISERS: Look Back in Anger

You can pretty much date the “angry young man” movement in British literature as having its beginnings with John Osborne’s play ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1956. In fact it was a press officer at the Royal Court Theatre who came up with the phrase as part of the play’s publicity.

The “angry young man” movement in British cinema was coterminous with the kitchen sink drama. These grimly realistic films, often tackling controversial social issues (infidelity, abortion, domestic violence, alcoholism), reached their fullest expression in the 1960s with the likes of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘The L-Shaped Room’, ‘This Sporting Life’, ‘The Family Way’ and ‘Poor Cow’. Two striking examples, however, were made in the late ’50s: Jack Clayton’s ‘Room at the Top’, from the novel by John Braine, and Tony Richardson’s adaptation (having directed the original theatrical production) of ‘Look Back in Anger’.

The clue’s in the title. And for anyone who missed it, it’s made explicitly clear in the towering fury of Richard Burton’s performance as Jimmy Porter, the mid-twenties university graduate who has turned his back on everything that university and education stand for and ekes out a basic living behind a market stall. At night, he plays trumpet and drinks at jazz clubs.
He lives in a dingy flat with put-upon wife Alison (Mary Ure) and lodger and co-worker at the stall Cliff (Gary Raymond). The flat, with its proximity to a church whose bells toll the faithful to and from worship with metronomic regularity, is a prison. Alison has become the personification of all the upper-middle-class superficiality he has so robustly eschewed. There is no love left in their marriage. Jimmy’s vehemence towards her leaves her fearful. She can’t bring herself to tell him she’s pregnant.

Cliff does his best to keep the peace between Jimmy and Alison, but his affectionate (though entirely platonic) relationship with Alison adds tension. Jimmy is as derogatory in his treatment of Cliff as he is towards Alison; and there’s no doubt that Cliff is second fiddle at the stall, Jimmy leaving him to tend to customers without a break while he hares off to the pub with “Ma” Tanner (Edith Evans). “Ma” Tanner is Jimmy’s erstwhile landlady and, as the maternal appellation suggests, something of a mother figure to him. A decent side to Jimmy emerges while he’s in her company; he accompanies her to a forlorn cemetery, goods trains clanking past in the distance, where she tends to her husband’s grave.

There’s a grimness to every frame of ‘Look Back in Anger’. From the dismal cemetery to the pubs wreathed in cigarette smoke; from the cramped rows of terraced houses to Jimmy and Alison’s equally cramped flat; from the grubby station platform where leave-takings and returnings are played out to the litter-strewn market place where stall inspector Hurst (Donald Pleasance) sneeringly and punctiliously makes his rounds and a coterie of stall holders close ranks against Indian tradesman Kapoor (S.P. Kapoor). Jimmy is a witness to the racially motivated accusations against Kapoor which see Hurst revoke his licence, and urges him to stand up to his accusers. Kapoor replies sadly and pragmatically that there are other towns and prepares to make his departure. “What made you come to this bloody country?” Jimmy asks him. “In India, I was an outcast,” Kapoor replies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

‘Look Back in Anger’ kicks Englishness in the teeth. It’s easy to see why the clanging churchbells drive Jimmy mad: he has rejected the doctrines they vouchsafe; he knows full well that the racket they make never quite disguises the provincialism, the xenophobia or the smug hypocrisies of which the likes of Alison’s parents are emblematic; never quite drowns out the bleating of mealy-mouthed jobsworths like Hurst. ‘Look Back in Anger’ kicks against church, state, education and ambition (asked what he really wants, Jimmy answers “Everything. Nothing”). It even cocks a snook at the theatrical tradition (notwithstanding the origins of its source material) by having Jimmy and Cliff boisterously interrupt the rehearsals of a parlour room play Alison’s friend Helena (Claire Bloom) is appearing in.

Jimmy’s an unlikeable character for much of the 100-minute running time (he’s probably even more insufferable for the two hours plus of the play), and my sympathies while watching the film are generally more with Alison despite the fact that she does herself no favours by being such a doormat, but I can understand where the anger comes from and what it’s directed towards. Anyone who can’t is either from the upper-middle-classes Jimmy’s so contemptuous of, or they’ve never lived in England.

As a feel-bad film, ‘Look Back in Anger’ is up there with anything Ken Loach has ever put his name to. As a document of working class Britain, it’s a lot more convincing than anything Mike Leigh has ever put his name to. As a showcase for a searing, raging, no-holds-barred, tear-the-screen-up performance, it’s arguably Richard Burton’s finest hour.


Bryce Wilson said...

Great review, Neil.

I always find it odd to read pieces that are critical of Britain as on the surface it seems like you guys have it pretty good. Health Care, a government that actually seems to give a crap, a culture that values education an thinks its a good thing, a right wing that seems merely stodgy rather then certifiably insane.

I'm sure that this is all Grass is greener stuffer, but I can't help but ascribe to a low level of anglophilia (not an annoying level, I'm Irish after all which means by law I'm required to piss on Cromwell's grave at some point in my life). After all it is a culture that produced Dickens, Chesterson, Allen Moore, Edgar Wright, Monty Python, The Rolling Stones, Hammer Films and The Clash. All things that my life would be much drearier without. Oh and The Beatles and Shakespeare. Oh and halted Nazism, which by the way we really appreciated.

So no I can't help but have some affection for The English way of life. As limited and selective as my view of that life might be.

I think this might be the best breakdown of The Anglo American breakdown in communication. Neither side gets it, but that's what makes it funny.

Bryce Wilson said...

Other things that England Produced that My life would suck Without:

Phillip Larkin, Michael Caine, Shane Meadows, Michael Powell, Hitchcock, George Orwell (Both writer and fears defining), David Mitchell, High Fidelity, Neil Gaiman, Beer In Pints, The idea of frying Cod in batter, English, Carol Reed, The word "Spiffing", Oscar Wilde, The sight of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain throwing Aleister Crowley off a zeppelin in The Venture Brothers, William Blake, Clive Barker, Prog Rock, Heavy Metal (Punk is still ours you bastards no matter how hard you try and claim it) The Beach (Book Only, then again England is responsible for the movie too so on second thought Fuck England)

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - thanks for the link. Bill Hicks in excelsis. I think if I were to produce a cross-the-channel/return-the-favour list of everything I love that hails from America, Bill Hicks would be very near the top, along with Sam Peckinpah, Cormac McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King during his early days when he didn't have to make every fucking novel 800 pages long, just about every director who ever made a movie in the 70s (what an awesome decade: you guys had Scorsese, Coppola, Malick, de Palma, Penn, Altman et al at their finest; what did we get? 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner'!)

Seriously, though, you're right to call me on how much good stuff has come out of England, even though most of our finest exports have been just that: Hitchcock migrated to America and became a household name; Neil Gaiman (good call - fantastic writer!) is resident in the States; likewise the Scott brothers.

Thanks for the shout about halting Nazism, by the way. But seriously, you guys brought some serious manpower to the table.

I think when you live close to something its flaws become the more apparent. True, we have the better deal in terms of healthcare over here, but the NHS isn't perfect by any means. Although hospital treatment is free, prescriptions from a GP aren't unless you're on benefits. So for a working stiff like me, part of whose deductions are NI (National Insurance) contributions - a sort of tax that pays for the health service - not only I am already paying towards the service, but I have to pay for any medicine prescribed to me. Waiting lists are troublesome and a lot of hospitals are old and in dire need to modernizing.

I think the other reason I'm so down on my homeland is that ravages done to basic personal liberties by the eight years in which the Blair government didn't so much govern as sell the country systematically down the river. But I'll stop right there before I go off on a thousand word rant. (You can find my review of the documentary 'Taking Liberties' somewhere in the archives; much of what I would have ranted about is contained therein.)

And, yeah, if ever a "fuck England" was deserved, Danny Boyle's piss-awful adaptation of 'The Beach' pretty much takes the cake.

Bryce Wilson said...

It's very true you've got to be close to something to see the cracks. I'm definitely going to look up Taking Liberties.

Thanks for the comments on the NHS. Because of the recent controversy over Health Care in America its been impossible to hear something about it that doesn't make it sound like you guys are either hiding Jesus in your hospitals and are surreptitiously having him heal all your sick, or have created some sub Orwellian nightmare that will soon be blown up by Hugo Weaving in a Guy Fawkes mask. Even handedness... bizarre.

As far as Hitch is considered though, I consider it fair trade for Kubrick.