A glimpse over the list of summer blockbusters leaves out one crucial aspect of film – reality. While we as movie lovers may be trying our very best to constantly escape reality, film is often at its best when dipping us into unfamiliar territory that does in fact exist.
Inspired by the burgeoning French New Wave of cinema in the late Fifties/early Sixties, Britain took what is known as the "kitchen sink" approach to drama. Rock ‘n’ roll was on holiday and a group of so-called "angry young men" took to the stage and screen to present the world at large with a claustrophobic, schizophrenic and riveting view of working-class life.
The films of Tony Richardson best present this harsh, grey world in stark black and white. 1959's "Look Back in Anger" (originally a play by John Osborne) still shows its stage mastery as Richard Burton becomes the typical anti-hero of this piece. His glower says a thousand words. To say he is a volcano is an understatement. In a spartan apartment in the Midlands, he struggles to break free of English provincial life.
Osborne and Richardson's next production, 1960's "The Entertainer," is flawed but fantastic. While it contains the first of many "living room" scenes where desperation is played out by all the characters, Sir Laurence Olivier gives a spellbinding performance as a comedian who is clearly on his way out. The stage pieces, written around him losing his audience, are a controlled slow burn that must be seen.
By 1961, Richardson has all but abandoned any hint of the proscenium arch in favor of using industrial Manchester as his tableau. As grim as life is for our teenage protagonist Jo (played beautifully by the glassy-eyed Rita Tushingham), Richardson and his cinematographer Walter Lassally make the grays and black around her look neverending. There are numerous shots on ferries, ships, lookouts that frame the characters as too small for this world. His work with Shelagh Delaney's play places a variety of class, social and personal struggles as full drama – not the soap operas they will soon become.
Albert Finney is the enfant terrible of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," a Richardson production of an Alan Sillitoe story. The titular troublemaker goes well beyond "angry young man" status – but we never understand why. As he responds to the oppressive industrial society around him, he is unapologetic, lacks empathy and is self-centered. English New Wave takes this to its extremes as Richard Harris is a violent, uncompromising rugby player in Lindsay Anderson's 1963 "This Sporting Life." Both are electrifying to watch, especially given where future anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White will take us.
In the end, British New Wave had to end. Rock ‘n’ roll was revived by the Beatles in 1963 and these filmmakers were suddenly as stifled by their bleak filmmaking as their characters. Richardson and Osborne turned their hand to classic British literature bringing to life the ribald picaresque life of the foundling "Tom Jones." The 1964 film uses all the anarchic styles previously introduced to transform what could have been a staid, staged codpiece period drama into an electric, tantalizing satire of what society missed within its pages.
As reality goes, these dramas may at times feel unreal. The dense industrial backdrops of the Midlands seem as far away as some interplanetary base.
Today, the hairstyles, clothes and dialects feel as alien as anything stored at Area 51. While it may not be the escape you crave, these classics of British cinema were the first pillars of the film code falling and bringing modernity to the screen.