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UK 1963
Directed by
Lindsay Anderson
134 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

This Sporting Life

Lindsay Anderson’s debut feature, unlike his later better-known works, If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1972) is in the 1950s English realist tradition along with such films as Room At The Top (1959) and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.(1960) the latter directed by Karel Reisz who produced this film.

Set in the depressed post-war industrial North, it tells the story of Frank Machin (Richard Harris) a coal miner for whom the brutal sport of rugby league promises an avenue of escape from grinding working class poverty. An uneducated and rough nut cocksure young man he has a genuine affection for the woman, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), in whose house he is boarder. She was left a widow with two small children after her husband was killed in a mill accident. Frank realizes his dream to be a big star on the field but off the field his success brings him nothing but trouble.

This is pre-Beatles and swinging London (one scene includes a performance by a skiffle band, Tommy Fisher and his Mis-Fits) and the division between the classes is firmly in place, with rugby league football a kind of gladiatorial sport for the amusement of the patrician class, represented by mill owner, Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel).

As is the case with many boxing films Frank is essentially a plaything for the managers and a scapegoat for the hoi polloi to be cast aside when his allotted time is spent. This is the point at which we first encounter Frank, after his front teeth have been smashed from a punch in the face. We learn the story of his rise and fall in flashback as he recovers.

This Sporting Life, scripted by David Storey from his own novel depicts the grimness of post-war England unsparingly. Anderson with his cameraman Denys Coop show us the mean tenements, the wet, soot-covered streetscapes and the bloody on-field stoushes to great effect, whilst Harris, in a performance which suggests Marlon Brando in both On The Waterfront (1954) and 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire (with Anderson copping the "Stella" scene from the latter) is excellent in the lead and is strongly supported by Roberts (who played Mrs Appleyard in Picnic At Hanging Rock,1975), the two actors pulling out all stops in the hyperbolically melodramatic final act.

The forward and backward shifts in time frame are, particularly latter stages, a bit difficult to follow with the film rather oddly ending in the past and it could perhaps have been a tad shorter but This Sporting Life is still a major contribution to this era of British film-making. 




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