The Austin Chronicle

AFS Essential's Blokes 'n' Birds: British Realist Cinema

By Josh Rosenblatt, August 31, 2007, Screens

On May 8, 1956, a play opened at London's Royal Court Theatre that turned the London cultural establishment on its ear and then stomped on its throat for good measure. At that time, the British theatre was all high art and class, ivory-tower studies of aristocrats and their butlers set in parlor rooms and gilded studies. Then John Osborne's Look Back in Anger appeared with its story of a disaffected working-class monster abusing his wife in a squalid one-room flat in the dreary English Midlands and knocked that bloody tower down.

Anger introduced theatregoers to the new world of "kitchen-sink realism," a catchall term that broadly defined the work of a new generation of artists, playwrights, and novelists exploring the cold realities of working-class life in 1950s England, an England just barely on the rebound from two decades of economic deprivation. Many of the plays and novels that came out in this period followed Osborne's "angry young man" approach to storytelling by examining the previously unexamined lives of disenchanted, underemployed lads lashing out at all the values British society had foisted upon them – tradition, convention, religion, decency – but that suddenly had no meaning.

The film version of Look Back in Anger (1958), starring Richard Burton as the acid-tongued Jimmy Porter and helmed by the play's original director, Tony Richardson, opens the next edition of the Austin Film Society's Essential Cinema series, Blokes 'n' Birds: British Realist Cinema (1958-1965), which will feature five other movies from that embittered era. Not only is Anger the classic example of angry-young-man cinema, which would become all the rage in Britain over the next seven years (launching the careers of many of the leading lights of British theatre and cinema in the process, including Michael Caine, Peter Finch, Albert Finney, and Richard Harris); it's also a true work of sociological art, indebted to the Italian neorealist school and to 1930s French poetic realism but adding a touch of British irony and proletarian grit. One of the terrible joys of watching the film is that our loathing for Jimmy, who unloads all his anger and resentment on his undeserving mouse of a wife (played with infinite resignation by Mary Ure), is constantly tempered by our amazement at the verbal dexterity with which he abuses her. Any sane viewer has to hate Jimmy for his brutality; any lover of the English language can't help but cheer for him. It's this ambiguity, coupled with the gray, despairing tone of the story's milieu, that caused British writer Allan Sillitoe to claim that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre; he set off a land mine and blew most of it up."

One of Sillitoe's own land mines, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, closes out the Blokes 'n' Birds series one month later. Though released only four years after Anger, Loneliness shows just how far kitchen-sink realism had come from that movie's violent despair. Whereas Burton's Jimmy is a son of Marlon Brando playing a son of Stanley Kowalski – full of an intemperate, masculine rage rationalized by philosophical brazenness – Tom Courtenay's Colin Smith is the damaged, observational heir to James Dean's Jim Stark – rail-thin and rebellious but with a passion directed more inward than out. Like Jimmy and so many of the other damaged men who will populate the Alamo South Lamar over the next month, Smith follows his own path, with only the light generated from his seething disaffection to guide him. But his rage won't win him freedom anywhere but in his own mind. And even then, only for a time.

Tuesdays, Sept. 4-Oct. 9

Alamo Drafthouse South

Look Back in Anger Sept. 4, 7pm

Girl With Green Eyes Sept. 11, 7pm

Sparrows Can't Sing Sept. 18, 7pm

Victim Sept. 18, 9:45pm

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Oct. 2, 7pm

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Oct. 9, 7pm

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.