Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner directed by Tony Richardson is another extremely impressive entry from the "British New Wave" of the early 60s. I also read the original short story by Alan Sillitoe recently which is quite good as well. The film relates the story of a teenager named Colin Smith, an "angry young man" somewhat familiar from other films of the period too, who is sent to a reformatory school after getting caught for a petty crime. There he is identified and selected by the governor of the school (played by Michael Redgrave) to run in an long distance cross-country marathon championship. Most of the story is told in flashblacks, as he practices for his long distance run, which shows episodes from his life before his arrest - the grim family and social life and occasional fun and happiness with his friends. But when the time comes on the final finish line he realizes a great chance to assert his freedom (not the literal freedom but freedom of spirit and individuality) and the oppositional anti-establishment stance. The ending is pessimistic and bleak but paradoxically also very inspiring and empowering.

What I loved in this film (and other films from the period) was its tone - the disaffected, hyper-articulate and angry voice of protest against the authority and the society: sort of working-class Holden Caulfield with hyper sensitive class awareness. I also loved the B&W cinematography which makes the grim outdoor locations look so evocative. And not to forget the sheer bloody-minded and totally anti-Hollywood style endings. Two weeks after I have still been thinking about "Billy Liar," the character Tom Courtenay played in the film of the same name (which I wrote about here). He is equally wonderful in this film. Every body gesture, every single twitch of the face (I am already in love with his smile, even though he smiles very rarely) conveys something complex and profound. Nothing is ever wasted. He is probably more well-known in Britain where he has been active on stage for many years but he really deserves celebration outside as well. His performance in both films has already become one of my all-time favourites.


A few words About the story by Alan Sillitoe (who wrote the screenplay for the film too). It is written in the first person and film pretty much follows it closely. The outdoor locations feel much more evocative and powerful in the film and so does Tom Courtenay's performance which transcends the character written in the story. On the other hand there are some wonderful monologues and eloquent diatribes some of which are there in the film too but the story has more of them. At one place in the film Colin rages, "Do you know what I'd do if I had the whip hand? I'd get all the coppers, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers and members of parliament and I'd stick them up against this wall and let them have it 'cause that's what they'd like to do to blokes like us." There is more of this in the book. It also helps to read the book imagining that particular accent, it becomes much more interesting and powerful then. It is written in a straight-forward way but it is the kind of writing whose authenticity and genuineness of the voice you feel in the gut and you don't feel the need to do any "close reading." Both story and the film highly recommended.


Jabberwock said...

Yes, wonderful actor, Courtenay. Have you seen The Dresser? Excellent performance but feels a bit strange to watch him and Albert Finney (both middle-aged at the time) playing relatively posh roles, a couple of decades after their stints as disaffected working-class laddies.

Speaking kitchen sink, I picked up a DVD of the Richard Burton version of Look Back in Anger recently.

Alok said...

No I haven't seen The Dresser. Billy Liar was my introduction to him and I was just totally floored by his performance when I saw it. He is marvelous in this one too.

I knew Finney but again wasn't prepared for his turn in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. These British films have been a great revelation to me. Look Back in Anger is also on the queue.