Director: Tony Richardson
Writer: Nigel Kneale
Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Mary Ure, and Edit Evans
When John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger first opened in 1956 it received an overwhelmingly negative reception from critics, with very few praising the play. Despite that it was an enormous commercial success and was an early example of a kitchen sink drama as well as marked the start of the angry young men movement in Britain (the term actually came from the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer to promote the play). The play was then adapted by screenwriter Nigel Kneale and director Tony Richardson into a film in 1959.
Look Back in Anger was the first film released from Woodfall Film Productions, which was founded by director Tony Richardson, John Osborne, and producer Harry Saltzman. Woodfall had been set up for the sole purpose of adapting Osborne’s play and would then go on to release a string of now classic and some of the most important films of British cinema.
Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) is angry at the entire world around him, seeing the injustice that happens on a day-to-day basis. He takes out his anger on his wife, Alison (Mary Ure), by viciously shouting at her at almost every opportunity. He assumes the worst from everything she does, not giving her time to explain her actions. The passion in their relationship has burnt out and they’re essentially just going through the motions. The couple live in a small attic flat in Derby with their friend Cliff Lewis (Gary Raymond), who sees the worst of both of them and tries to stay neutral in the arguments.
Things go from bad to worse when Alison finds out that she’s pregnant and can’t find the right way to tell Jimmy. She invites her friend Helena (Claire Bloom) to stay with them, knowing that Jimmy hates her, but she needs someone to talk to. It leads to one of the most brutal things that Jimmy can say to Alison, not knowing that she’s pregnant but wishing that she will be one day and lose the child so she can feel the pain it would cause. It’s a horrible moment and a turning point in their relationship.
While towards Alison, Jimmy is almost always spiteful, angry, and very bitter towards her middle-class family, he’s not a through-and-through bad person. There’s an interesting sub-plot where he tries to stand up to some racism in the market where he works, and he’s incredibly protective of his mother. Even with Alison there’s hints of what their relationship used to be, with one particular sweet scene early on, where they can pretend to be part of another world. The entire cast is great in their roles, especially Mary Ure and Richard Burton. They play off each other very well, and there is a gritty realism to their relationship. Burton, who was thirty-five at the time, does feel a little old to be playing Jimmy, but it’s a small issue that you get over quickly enough.
The film adaptation doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots, being very dialogue heavy and does feel staged. The dialogue is absolutely fantastic, blending a mix of over-dramatic and realism that feels very natural. It’s emotional and really lets you get inside the characters minds. It’s wonderfully written and something that you could come back to time and time again, each time picking up on little pieces you missed before.
On the surface Look Back in Anger is a drama about relationships and beneath that it’s a look a the working-class in the 50s and a world that doesn’t seem fair. The story is over sixty years old but feels just as fresh and relevant now. With fully developed characters and great dialogue, the film is very easy to get into and takes a long time for it to leave your mind.
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