Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Movie Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Director Tony Richardson is best known for the playful, wry comedy Tom Jones, 1963's Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. Prior to that, however, Richardson made his name, with a series of black and white, modestly budgeted, critically acclaimed, free cinema inspired, kitchen sink dramas of which The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Runner is one of the finest. Perhaps the reason why quality productions like this are frequently overlooked by the general public and appreciated only by movie buffs is due to the fact that UK cinema has struggled to find its own voice over the years. Talented actors, actresses, directors, screenwriters, and major players from Britain ended up frequently being snapped up by American studios after making a name for themselves in their native land. The allure of a substantial raise in pay and a chance to work in Hollywood, then as now proved a powerfully motivating force. Countries that cannot pay top dollar for their A-list talent are often plagued by wholesale defections and the resulting brain drain renders them hard pressed to maintain any sort of cinematic continuity. This phenomenon was also true during the late silent era of the 1920's as American studios hired away the best talent that Scandinavia and Germany had to offer.

Nonetheless, the UK screen enjoyed its own brief golden age which lasted from roughly the late 1950's until the mid 1960's. Free cinema, as it proclaimed itself, made a concerted effort to revolutionize film-making, drawing frequent inspiration from the movers and shakers of French New Wave, whose contribution to celluloid transpired simultaneously to its British counterparts--existing just across the English channel. Adherents to the new cinematic movement asserted that, prior to its existence, the British film industry and the dramatic arts had previously taken too narrow a focus. Films prior to the period were frequently set and based in the affluent, more supposedly cultured south of England, reinforcing strict class distinctions, bourgeoisie pretenses, and social inequality. Free Cinema, by contrast, believed that much of the country's cinematic output reeked of elitism, snobbery, and pretention, furthermore neglecting to even as much as acknowledge the daily life of the average Briton. British New Wave directors, film critics, and screenwriters: Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Alan Sillitoe turned their focus instead upon the industrial, grimy, hard scrabble, largely working class North of England.

Films of this period inevitably center on the life and resulting struggles of a frustrated, often dubiously moral angry young man from a working class background. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the latest specimen is Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a product of a dysfunctional home, squabbling parents, bratty siblings, and not all that much in the way of motivation. Refusing to enter the work force as a factory laborer--a demanding, physically taxing occupation, Colin instead would much rather live a meandering existence as a petty criminal. Justifiying his reluctance to secure a job, he is keen to point out the economic disparities between the management at the top and the workers at the bottom. Rather than take a low level role in the factory as his father did, Smith refuses to contribute his talents to what he perceives as an unjust, unfair, souless system.

In place of work, he prefers the thrill of car theft and stealing small sums of money. Predictably, as his successes as a thief multiply he pursues larger and larger targets. After absconding with a substantial amount of money from a baker's shop he is eventually caught by the police and promptly then sent away to reform school. While at reform school, his prowess as a long-distance runner grants him the attention of the Governor (Michael Redgrave) and head of the entire school. The Governor seeks to groom Smith to excel, insisting he direct his sizeable athletic talents towards winning a trophy at a cross-country competition, eventually to be held pitting the men of the reform school against the athletes of an upper-crust public school. Colin Smith, however, has other ideas, as we see by the end, shows himself to be thoroughly disinclined to be neither anyone's lapdog nor a pawn in the hands of his jailers.

Class conflict shows itself prominently in the film, particularly when the running teams from both reform school and public school meet shortly before the match. The public school athletes display impeccable manners and upper class accents, while the reform school lads make no effort to conceal their working class accents and unpolished decorum. The haughty mannerisms and behavior of the Governor and his associates stands out in sharp contrast to the reform school men who hold no such pretensions or aspirations.

Technically speaking, this film utilizes some especially inventive camera techniques, often indebted to the pioneering works of French directors Godat and Truffaut. Handheld camera shots pop up during a fight in the reform school's cafeteria and Richardson even uses some well placed double speed shots for the sake of comedic effect in an effort to brighten up an otherwise bleak film. Today many of these effects appear heavily dated or even cliche but at the time they were quite novel. Certain sequences resemble documentary filmmaking, hardly surprising since many directors of the free cinema era got their start in the genre. As such, it's understandable that they incorporated many disparate elements previously found only in documentary films. genre into feature films. While many of these technical innovations are run of the mill now, they were quite radically different from the status quo at the time, introducing a much rougher, more realistic element to film, emphasizing the social realism of the subject matter.

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