Movie adaptations of classic texts can be disappointing. Transitioning from one form to the next is dangerous, particularly when nothing original arises from the outgoing medium. Sometimes it’s as if the filmmakers have left the camera pointed at a stage-play or between the pages of a book. But the 1958 film adaptation of Look Back in Anger is a masterful translation of John Osborne’s (now-)classic play – incorporating the essence of the newly-emerging British New Wave and continuing the legacy of the “angry young men” literary movement.
Set in the grey and wet city of Derby, sweet-seller Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton) lives with his wife Alison (Mary Ure) and best friend Cliff (Gary Raymond). He is a stern, explosive individual – consistently aggressive and searingly misogynistic, even by the standards of 1958. Alison feels tired and trapped by him, never finding the right opportunity to say she’s carrying his child. And when she invites her actress friend Helena (Claire Bloom) to stay in their cramped apartment, the friction between them increases.
Screenwriter Nigel Kneale had a potentially-devastating task on his hands. Mostly known for penning sci-fi and horror scripts for the BBC, he then entered the territory of the kitchen sink drama. And from a theatre production too, which don’t often accommodate a filmic substance. Even recent adaptations, like Eric Styles’ That Good Night, can’t get it right – drowning in a mediocre piece of filmed theatre. But Kneale and British New Wave director Tony Richardson (in his first cinema release) creates something original, contextual, and breathtakingly cinematic.
Kneale expands the stage, bringing life to scenarios merely mentioned in the play. He adds scenes between Jimmy and his mother (Edith Evans) who’s suddenly hit by a stroke, leading into the most heart-wrenching scene in the film. Kneale even adds characters of his own to reflect their time and place, namely the Indian clothes-seller (S.P. Kapoor) who sets up shop next to Jimmy in the market. Although his character has been written off by some critics as superfluous, he is key to the setting. And the inevitable racism strongly resonates with modern audiences. How can it not, in today’s world?
Jimmy encapsulates the Brit version of the Kerouac-y archetype – the partially crazy, anti-establishment aggressor. He never wants to change his situation in fear of bowing down to the money-makers at the top. Tony Richardson would expand on this with the character of Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and you can imagine him and Jimmy being best mates.
But the verbally-abusive misogynist who’s raining with tears on the inside has become less appealing in recent years. Kneale builds Jimmy better than Osborne, and Richard Burton performs him with such verve and terror and humour – but he’s not as sympathetic as the film wants him to be. You can’t help but be more interested in the female characters, especially Alison. And Helena is barely explored at all (not even Kneale can explain her sudden love for Jimmy).
And yet, Look Back in Anger is one of the most important British films of the period – rising from the ashes of the Free Cinema documentary movement of the ‘50s. Through renowned cinematographer Oswald Morris, Tony Richardson gives us a bleak and damp vision of England – perhaps overly stylised compared to his later work, but evocative nonetheless. It is a stirring adaptation of an unexceptional play.
Look Back in Anger is showing as part of the BFI’s Woodfall season, 2nd April – 12th April 2018.