Feature: Look Back in Anger and the Emergence of the 'Angry Young Man'
Look Back in Anger (Directed by Tony Richardson, 1959).
When John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, it shocked audiences and critics with its harsh dramatisation of everyday working-class life through the character of Jimmy Porter, the 'angry young man' who struggles to find a sense of purpose in a post-war society that is riddled with inequality.
Inspired by his own experiences, Osborne took off the blinkers when he wrote this play, rebelling against the establishment to expose the vacuum of discontent that existed in England during this period. The resultant impact changed the course of English drama, but it also helped to lay the foundations for English cinema's new wave movement, which produced a series of social realist films.
One of the pioneers of this new genre was Tony Richardson. The dynamic young director, already renowned for his original stage version of Look Back in Anger, adapted its story for the screen in 1959. This was his first major foray into film-making, and also marked the beginning of a successful collaboration between himself and Osborne that would last for many years.
From the opening credits, the film transports us back to the 1950s and captures the vibrant spirit of the youth scene by showing a group of revellers jiving during a night out at a jazz club, where Jimmy, played by Richard Burton, jams on his trumpet alongside Chris Barber's Quartet. Then the mood suddenly becomes very tense as the action switches to the grey and squalid backdrop of the flat that Jimmy shares with his wife Allison (Mary Ure) and their lodger Cliff (Gary Raymond).
Most of the action takes place here and focuses on the married couple's turbulent relationship. Jimmy works in a dead-end job running a market stall, and is disillusioned by his inability to make any progress after leaving university. In this respect he represents a generation of working-class people who, after 1945, were given the opportunity to gain an education through the welfare state, only to discover that their prospects were limited because they were still not accepted in mainstream society. Jimmy's resentment boils over into his marriage: he takes out his frustrations on Allison, an easy target for his ferocious attacks because she comes from a privileged middle-class background.
Jimmy's hatred of the establishment in all its shapes and forms is brought out by Nigel Kneale's powerful script, which builds an atmosphere of conflict. The character of Cliff acts as a referee between the couple, and he at one point tellingly describes their flat as a battlefield. The clash between the classes continues with the arrival of Claire Bloom, who, as Allison's best friend Helena Charles, antagonises Jimmy to the point of uncontrollable rage with her snobbish attitude.
The film gives us an uncompromising insight into human relationships, with the two main characters displaying a level of emotional depth that makes them very believable. Initially, Allison might be viewed as a victim because of her passive response to Jimmy's relentless abuse, but this impression begins to change when she demonstrates her strength through her ability to survive. In contrast, Jimmy's powerful personality unravels, as his paranoia reveals his insecurities about being betrayed by his wife, who, he believes, does not understand or support him. However, as things go on, it is he who ends up letting Allison down with his callousness.
Besides making a social comment about England's rigid class system, the film examines a country that was going through a massive transitional phase, adjusting to the loss of empire and to the cultural shift brought by the dawning of what Jimmy calls the 'American age.' This created a crisis of confidence, because everything that people strongly identified with was beginning to disappear. The resulting pessimism about the future fuelled a sentimental yearning for past glories, and this is reflected through the film's characters, as both Jimmy and Colonel Redfern (Glen Byam Shaw), Allison's father, nostalgically look back to a time when England's pre-eminence was unchallenged and there was something worthwhile to fight for and believe in.
In many ways Look Back in Anger is a period piece, but it is still absorbing today because its themes transcend time. The issue of disaffected young people who feel that the state is failing them with its hypocrisy is as relevant now as it was then. The film tackles the spectre of racism and the problem of apathy about good causes: Jimmy stands up for an immigrant worker who is being targeted by a bureaucratic market inspector (Donald Pleasence), but he finds out that those around him do not share his appetite for making a difference when his efforts are stifled by a group of bigoted stallholders. The movie was also ahead of its time because it deals with problems that we have come to associate with dysfunctional relationships, such as psychological abuse and the breakdown in communication.
What epitomised this style of filmmaking was its 'no-holds-barred' attitude: nothing was above reproach, and all aspects of English society were openly scrutinised by strong working-class characters like Jimmy Porter. This gave a voice to a section of the community that until this point had been marginalised, both in real life and on screen.
Another prominent feature of new wave cinema was its rejection of the conventional hero in favour of the antihero. Jimmy is far from noble; he is passionate and idealistic, but at other times he comes across as unsympathetic and self-centred. Richard Burton uses his vocal command and brooding presence to give an almost stage-like performance that conveys all these conflicting sides. But he is at his best when he shows Jimmy's vulnerability, such as in scenes involving the character's beloved ex-landlady, played by Edith Evans, and when he graphically recalls watching his father die. This is one of the key points of the movie, explaining the roots of Jimmy's angry and misogynistic behaviour. The rest of the cast provide good support and bring a sense of balance to the picture, with Mary Ure in particular delivering an eye-catching performance, since her subtle portrayal of Allison combines so well with Burton's raw energy.
While the film ends with a classic smoke-filled silhouette that sees the married couple reunited through a cruel twist of fate, this is not your typical afternoon matinee, because it does not give a rose-tinted view of the world. As a result, watching Look Back in Anger can be a tense affair, but the integrity of the subject matter keeps us transfixed, showing that, even after fifty years, this story can still make an impact.--Kamran Riaz-Mohammed.
We are very pleased to welcome Kamran Riaz-Mohammed to the Albion team. Kamran comes from Manchester and brings to the magazine a background in journalism. His film reviews for this edition appear on the next page of Cinema Corner.--The Editor