Wednesday, 1 November 2017

This Sporting Life (1963 film)

This Sporting Life is a 1963 British film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and based on the novel by David Storey. It stars Richard Harris as Frank Machin, a coal miner turned rugby league player. The movie follows Machin's professional trials and tribulations, and his romantic entanglements.

This film has assumed an almost mythic reputation within these shores, but it is different from how I remember it from my previous viewings. There is less rugby league action than one might imagine. One thing which is certain is that the piece would not have worked nearly as well had it been made in colour. 

If I discerned a message from watching the film, it was one of self-expression and honesty.  It was released in 1963, at a time when Britain was emerging from an introspective and deferential period, and bright young things from all kinds of social backgrounds were coming to the fore and making themselves heard.

I know that from the distance of the 21st century, some of the working class based "kitchen sink" drama of the early 1960s can even seem like self-parody, and occasionally comes off as patronizing. However, I think that This Sporting Life is plausible and credible in the main, partly because of the acting performances, and also because it lacks excessive self-consciousness. 

The movie strikes a chord with me, in a nebulous way. I was probably never really "working class" myself, in the truest sense, although my surroundings and contemporaries were.  There is an authenticity and candour here which is quite revelatory. People struggling to contain their feelings, but sometimes "letting go". That was something which I seldom saw in my youth. The grittiness and rawness seem real to me.

The social commentary here is quite subtle and "organic", somewhere in there for the viewer to pick out and ponder upon, and the "kitchen sink" elements focus primarily on the relationship between Machin and his landlady, played by Rachel Roberts.  As the film progressed, I thought that the portrayal of the human condition was increasingly bleak. Not a "feel good" film, from that point of view. 

The characters are struggling to communicate with each other, to open up, partly because of traditional British reserve and reticence. Frank Machin seems more expressive than most, but lacks subtlety and finesse in his dealings with others. Everyone else seems to conform, and this leaves Machin looking and feeling like an outsider, often uncomfortable in this milieu. An "angry young man"?.  Perhaps...

In contrast to the dark, dimly lit scenes in the house, the rugby portions of the movie are (comparatively) bright, less subdued and insidious, perhaps symbolizing the game as a form of escape for Machin from his other demons, frustrations and concerns. The picture is done in a "flashback" format, and this is employed to good effect, imbuing the work with additional dynamism and pace, and encouraging the viewer to muse upon meanings. 

Some of the scenes, especially those accompanied by the mildly avant-garde and creepy music, remind me somewhat of European art cinema, "audio-visually" at least.

The Machin character remains impassive and stony-faced when confronted with sycophancy and shallow fawning by social climbers. His responses, expressions and attitudes are possibly more ambiguous than those of your typical "angry young man". This also applies I think to his interactions with his "superiors", such as the rugby league club's owners. Whilst complex, he lacks savvy or sensitivity.  The brooding but enigmatic countenance is brilliantly conveyed by Harris. It is good to see some "animal" emotion in there, rather than endless oblique philosophizing.

This Sporting Life embodies a collision of  traditional values and the modern, business-like approach to life, as befits a film made during a transitional period in social history. Also, philosophies of life which are not epoch-sensitive are to the fore. Those who had decided "if you can't beam 'em, join 'em" stood out to me. One or two scenes depict Machin as detached, gazing upon the superficiality and pretense around him.

This feeling of detachment and alienation I could relate to.  The world is not a perfect place, and one can be too proud, and refuse to meet people halfway, ultimately to one's detriment. 

Another facet of Machin's personality rang true with me as well. That of not knowing how to behave, and what to say, at a crucial time. Misjudging situations and other people's feelings.  There is a fine line between honesty and leaving things alone which are better left unsaid. Being too eager to impress. Being out of practice, as it were, and this rustiness leading to a crudeness and insensitivity, and much later regret.

I feel that this film also serves as a pretty good study of the human psyche and the male condition especially. People being unable to communicate effectively, being on different wavelengths. This is one of the unpleasant, and unpalatable, realities of adult existence. At the root of it all, maybe, lie insecurity and loneliness. 

A great sequence near the end may encapsulate much of the film's narrative. We see Machin on a hill, looking down on the town, which could be seen as a microcosm of the world.  We then cut to a grim, brutal rugby tussle. Summing up his, and our existence, perhaps?  Then again, the rugby-life parallels are perhaps a little too convenient and easy.

Rachel Roberts' performance I find to be a real "grower".  Early on, it can seem a little bland and hesitant, but one has to see how things develop to appreciate that this was intentional. A strong, seamless effort.

This movie has a naturalness and a believability which makes it compelling.  This is real life. People here are not pointedly or blatantly wallowing in their predicament, or chafing at any kind of social chains. It is surprisingly fresh and resonant. Some of the topics and concerns explored are universal.  If anything, the film goes on too long.  It is not exactly light or "escapist" viewing, but it is satisfying and engaging.

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