Better Suited as One Act Plays

Look Back in Anger (1959). UK. Directed by Tony Richardson. With Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Mary Ure.

Belonging to the stage first, Look Back in Anger (not to be confused with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, 1973) skipped the pond and garnered several Tony nominations in 1958.  John Osborne’s drama became stamped with “Angry Young Men” from a critic’s review.  The label stuck to him and productions in theater and film resembling this focus on working class characters.  Notable filmmakers to this British New Wave (late 1950s to early 1960s) movement are Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, and Lindsay Anderson.  This social slant followed ideas seeded by German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht (1898- 1956) where he refashioned theater for new social uses.  Class consciousness needed to be raised especially with a Marxist artist.  Mary Ure graced the stage and film set for Look Back in Anger.  Osborne married Ure (she later wed manly Robert Shaw), and he had a lengthy career.

“Kitchen Sink Drama” storytelling pulled from the “Free Cinema Movement” (mid 1950s) was founded by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz.  Grants from the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund sustained these projects.  16mm cheap stock of black and white film plus handheld cameras mimicked and unavoidably repeated even as late at 1995 specifically Denmark’s Dogme 95.  Anderson and Reisz disparaged the Documentary Film Movement of the 1920s and 1930s except for Scottish filmmaker John Grierson who in popular myth coined “documentary” for non fiction film in 1926.  Anderson and Reisz admitted to being influenced by French director Jean Vigo whose cinema vérité rippled into the French New Wave decades later despite his tuberculosis induced death in 1934 at the age of 29.  To be fair, British New Wave minimally registers in people’s minds.

Film Still from Look Back in Anger. (l to r) Jimmy (Richard Burton) and Alison (Mary Ure)

Richardson directs Look Back in Anger with gnarly Richard Burton at the helm and petite Claire Bloom battling against his rage.  Mary Ure plays fragile Alison Porter in exquisite vulnerability and dubiety.  Wife to Jimmy Porter (Burton), Alison retreats further into silence with every verbal evisceration and physical blow Jimmy delivers.  Helena Charles (Bloom) is her theatrical friend of whom Jimmy detests.  Alison sanctions Helena staying in their cramped household while she completes a play run.  Jimmy’s brother and foil to his meanness, Cliff protects Alison and shows genuine kindness that Jimmy reads as a yearning for her.  To whom is his jealousy directed?  Alison.

Jimmy and Cliff sell sweets in an open market.  Well below his university education, Jimmy spews his dissatisfaction and self-loathing to any one in a 12-foot radius.  Immune to his rage is his mother.  He glows in her company.  Loose ends about his father’s death and family dynamics could be a necessary mysterious aspect to art, but it is uneven.  Moreover, Alison’s pregnancy and departure transitioning to Helena and Jimmy falling in love confused me to such a degree that I replayed the scenes right before their declarations.  Offscreen, Burton had deflowered Bloom years prior.  She had been playing Ophelia to his Hamlet.  Revisiting their sexual relationship frequently, Look Back in Anger was no different except his roué persona undermined their understanding.

As proof in this entry, I am more fascinated by the components of this film rather than celebrating the film alone.  For its place in film history, I am gratified for viewing, but Burton rarely adapted to film sets.  His performances were transplants from the stage.  Franco Zeffireilli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) merged his theater presence and Shakespearean film adaptation to absolute success.  Burton was a particular talent in that regard.  Look Back in Anger held much promise and so did Jimmy.  Maybe that was the point?

For more about British New Wave, click here.

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