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UK 1959
Directed by
Tony Richardson
115 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Look Back In Anger

John Osborne’s iconic play of the same name is so packed with anti-bourgeois virulence that whilst it may have spoken to a generation in its day (it effectively gave its name to the “angry young men”  of immediate post-war Britain, the equivalent to America’s beatniks) today it seems almost risible in its declamatory vituperance (in its day it was spoofed  as “Look Back In Hunger” in the 1958 episode of Hancock’s Half Hour “The East Cheam Drama Festival”).

Tony Richardson, making his feature film debut, directed the stage version and whilst retaining its verbal violence he tellingly uses the film medium to amplify it with some striking mise en scène as well as to bring home the poverty-row drabness of everyday working class life, something that would become characteristic of a raft of realist films that followed (and which still persists in the style today).  

Richard Burton plays Jimmy Porter, a Northern England university graduate railing against the strictures of middle-class conformity who has chosen to “drop out” (as we would now say) and run a sweet stall in the local market by day and play jazz trumpet by night.  Although he has married Alison (Mary Ure), he despises her for her upper-class family and bullies and abuses her continuously.  They live a going-nowhere existence in crummy digs that they share with Jimmy’s sweet  stall partner, Cliff (Gary Raymond), with Alison’s independent-minded friend, Helena (Claire Bloom), whom, of course, Jimmy hates even more than his wife, coming to stay.  Helena convinces Alison to leave but, surprisingly, hate turns to love and Helena starts an affair with Jimmy.

In a role which in hindsight looks like a younger incarnation of George from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Burton’s Jimmy rages against the stagnation that was post-war Britain with its “mustn’t grumble” dis-spiritedness and dull conformism. Although Burton is too old for the part it is a powerhouse performance albeit too over-the-top to deserve the title of realism. Indeed whilst many of the films of this style such as Bryan Forbes' The L-Shaped Room (1962) and Richardson’s own A Taste Of Honey (1961) are still worth watching for their insights into the human condition, Osborne’s portrait of people “who can’t stand the pain of being human” feels over-wrought to the point of self-parody and self-indulgent to the point of give-me-a-break tiresomeness (Mike Leigh’s Naked provides a modern updating of the character).

Ure, Bloom and Raymond all contribute good work with a small role for Donald Pleasence as a smarmy market supervisor whilst the trad jazz score is provided by Chris Barber with Burton’s trumpet playing by Pat Halcox.




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